12: Christmas in Philips Head

12: Christmas in Philips Head

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Christmas in Philips Head

It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.

~W.T. Ellis

Just before classes ended for the day, an eighth-grader named Marie raised her hand and quietly asked, “Teacher, what will we do in our Christmas concert this year?” She was one of my sixteen students ranging from grade five to grade nine in the “high room,” in our two-room school. “We will have one, won’t we?” she continued with concern. “We always have a concert.”

“A concert?” I replied, caught off guard. “Well yes, of course,” I managed to get out. “We must have a concert. What would Christmas be without a concert? Let’s start making plans after school today.”

Just two and a half months into my first year of teaching, I had soon learned the “high room” teacher was in charge of organizing everything from making sure the school’s winter wood was stockpiled, to planning socials and scheduling parents to scrub the school. Now, it seemed, I was in charge of the Christmas concert as well!

After classes finished that day several students and I stayed behind and began making our plans. We looked at Christmas concert skits used in other years, and they laughed and reminisced about past successes and flops.

“Tomorrow,” I suggested, “we’ll write a business letter and order a book of plays.”

“Yes, great,” responded Edward and Verna, “and we can get started on making streamers and decorations tonight.”

The little meeting ended. Darkness came early to Newfoundland in November, and as I lit the two Aladdin lamps on the classroom wall, I couldn’t help but think how these two lamps wouldn’t provide much light for the concert. Philips Head, a small community in the Bay of Exploits, was some distance from other larger towns and still isolated enough that electricity had not yet reached it. But concerns about lighting on concert night would have to wait. At that moment, there were other more pressing items that needed to be arranged.

The new concert material arrived on time, and by early December the program itself was beginning to come together, which included opening and closing recitations, a drill, a short play, and some songs that were copied and passed out to be practised. Young Sarah found the ideal drama for the grade nines and gave it to me to look over.

“Sarah,” I said with some concern, “it calls for several speaking roles. We don’t have enough students here to cover all the characters!” That’s when I received another lesson about life in Philips Head.

“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “People here have always played in the concert. Some of them finished school here years ago, and they still perform in the Christmas concert. And when we sing the closing carols, most of them will leave the audience and come right up on stage to sing.”

“Like who?” I asked a bit dubiously.

“Well, there’s Uncle Jim, and you know Mrs. Baker the postmistress? She’s always telling funny stories, and Norm and… they’ll all want to play a part.”

Now my greatest concern became making sure everyone had something to do! They came after school and practised. Roland’s older brother could play the guitar, and provided the music we needed for “The First Noel” and “Good King Wenceslas.” Then, one Saturday before the concert men armed with hammer and saw arrived and built our stage complete with two bed sheet-type curtains that could be opened and closed with a drawstring. “Teacher’s only a young feller,” they joked. “We’ll get him through.”

School closed early on December 22nd. Mothers came to give the school a thorough cleaning. Roland and Uncle Jim removed the folding doors between the two classrooms, and arranged the seating. Someone went into the woods and brought back a huge Christmas tree. Before 3:30 rolled around the woodsy smell of balsam fir filled the room, and the branches drooped with gifts for Santa to give out after the closing carol. But then came the final surprise. Verna’s father, home from his work as an electrician in the Grand Falls paper mill, arrived at the school with his truck. He proceeded to string wires from his portable generator into the school, and then attached several light fixtures to the ceiling.

“Don’t bother with those old Aladdin lamps,” he said with a grin. “You won’t be needing them now!”

When he threw the switch an hour before show time, the Philips Head Christmas Concert was lit by electricity for the first time.

Norm, who was slated to play Santa later in the evening, sidled over and said, “Well Teacher, the place is full already, and everything is going like clockwork.”

“Yes,” I laughed, as much in relief as excitement. “From homemade decorations and curtains, to music, songs and skits, even Santa will be jollier tonight. And with those electric lights, this year he won’t have as much trouble seeing the names on the gift tags!”

Much later in the evening, as the final curtain closed on an overcrowded stage, I looked around the tiny schoolroom where Christmas traditions were being shared and passed on. Young and old alike had helped the new teacher transform our little school into a bright, festive concert hall. I knew I would never forget the lights of that special year, my first Christmas in Philips Head, Newfoundland.

~Robert C. Parsons

Grand Bank, Newfoundland and Labrador

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