Tourists chase an authentic Newfoundland welcome through ‘screech-in’ ceremony

Roxanne Logan of Johannesburg, South Africa kisses the Cod as she is “ScreechedIn” by Brian Day at Christian’s Pub on Wednesday February 13, 2019 in St. John’s NL receive a certificate. The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

All eyes in the bar are on Brian Day as he dons a sou’wester rain hat and charms a small crowd with a performance he’s perfected over the years: the screech-in ceremony.

Every screech-in presider puts their own spin on the proceedings, but the essentials of the Newfoundland welcoming remain the same.

Newcomers take a shot of rum, taste a bite of fried bologna – also known as “Newfoundland steak”- and kiss a codfish before reciting: “Long may your big jib draw.”

“It means ‘I wish you good luck,”‘ said Day, explaining that a “jib” is the sail in a schooner.

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The tradition has certainly drawn in good fortunes for Christian’s Bar, the downtown St. John’s establishment where Day is owner, operator and screech presider.

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The former cigar bar initially began losing business when the indoor smoking ban came into effect in 2005, which is when revenue from screech-in ceremonies became more important.

Now, travellers from around the world walk though Christian’s doors looking to become honourary Newfoundlanders.

Particpants who are “ScreechedIn” by Brian Day at Christian’s Pub on Wednesday February 13, 2019 in St. John’s NL receive an official certificate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Christian’s charges guests $20 per screech-in. Day said he’s lost count of how many he’s performed, but whether he’s screeching in one person or 45, he concludes every ceremony by welcoming each person by name.

One name in particular has been engraved on a pillar inside: the late Anthony Bourdain. The celebrity chef was screeched in by Day in October 2017 when he visited the province for an episode of his CNN travel series ‘Parts Unknown.’

Producers told Day the true “Bourdain effect” will be felt this summer, after international audiences have had time to watch and book their trips.

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The ceremony also has a dedicated song in the Broadway musical “Come From Away,” based on the true story of passengers welcomed to Newfoundland after an emergency landing following the 9/11 attacks.

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All-Canadian ‘Come From Away’ opens in Toronto

The ceremony’s appearance on Broadway and CNN means growing international interest, and more tourist dollars for local businesses – but the attention also contributes to the ceremony’s controversial mythology.

Some see the screech-in as a cash grab that spreads an oversimplified caricature of the province and its people, tied to the negative “Newfie” stereotype that paints Newfoundlanders as happy-go-lucky yet unintelligent and lazy.

Former premier Clyde Wells condemned the ceremony in the early 1990s and ordered the destruction of thousands of “Order of Screechers” certificates bearing his signature.

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For come-from-aways and locals

Day said he keeps this interpretation in mind. It inspired him to adapt his screech-in act to include a rant speaking to Newfoundland’s attributes, like boasting about the “friendliest and funniest” people in the country.

He says the performance is entertaining for come-from-aways and sometimes emotional for locals.

“When I get the Newfoundlanders, my people coming to me and saying, ‘You made me cry. You know, you never made me so proud to be a Newfoundlander, when you did your ceremony’ – that’s really impactful for me,” Day said.

The formal ceremony as presented in bars like Christian’s largely evolved in the 1970s as a form of entertainment for tourists.

Brian Day displays the official certificate that participants receive as he officiates a “ScreechedIn” ceremony at Christian’s Pub on Wednesday February 13, 2019 in St. John’s, NL. The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

Some consider the screech-in a manufactured tradition, but folklorist Philip Hiscock argues its roots go farther back, to informal guest ceremonies in the 1940s and initiation rituals performed on sealing vessels and other ships.

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Hiscock said anti-screech attitudes have become a part of the tradition itself.

“It’s one of the reasons why people love to do it, because they know some people hate it,” he said.

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Contessa Small, a folklorist at Memorial University researching a book on the tradition, said the ceremony has become increasingly attractive to outsiders seeking a sense of belonging in a busy, conflict-ridden world.

“When (they) come to Newfoundland, they’re coming with those ideas where you can slow down and find yourself, and maybe enjoy some of the better things in life,” she said.

“Maybe what we’re experiencing is a flip of that ‘Newfie’ stereotype, in that they’re coming here acknowledging the beauty of it, the intelligence of it, that this is a lifestyle that has value.”

Emma Hall, left to right, Herfordshire, UK, Brian Day (Officiate) Roxanne Logan, Johannesburg, South Africa and Kangyn Wang of China display their official certificate following their “ScreechIn” by Brian Day at Christian’s Pub on Wednesday February 13, 2019 in St. John’s NL. The Canadian/Paul Daly

Broadway and television have spread the word, but Small said positive personal experiences in Newfoundland have likely played the biggest role in the screech-in’s growing fame.

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“I think the narrative thrust of the story, their experiences, is what really popularized it,” Small said. “If it didn’t trigger something in people … we wouldn’t have those tourists coming here now.”

For his part, Day sees his performance as a personalized welcome to a home he’s proud of.

“It all depends on how you want to welcome somebody into your home, or into your house, or into your business or into your island. And how I welcome people into the island in my ceremony is unique and special,” Day said.

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