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Pandemic dampening ‘Tibb’s Eve,’ the unique N.L. holiday with folkloric origins

O'Reilly's Irish Newfoundand Pub, shown here in 2020 on George Street in downtown St. John's, is normally stuffed to the gills on Dec. 23. This year, with the dance floor shut down under public health restrictions, things will look a lot different. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Dec. 23 – also known as Tibb’s Eve – is an unofficial holiday unique to the province, born out of folklore and turned into a big night for St. John’s bars.

For Chris Shortall, a beloved St. John’s extrovert known for throwing excellent parties, Tibb’s Eve is spent dancing and laughing, going from bar to house party to bar with outstretched arms to greet friends. But not in a global pandemic.

“There’s not as many people coming home, because they have to quarantine for two weeks,” Shortall said in a recent interview. “And also there’s less events on the go. You can’t dance in bars; a lot of events have migrated online.”

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Tibb’s Eve is a night set aside for friends during the family-focused Christmas season. In Newfoundland in Labrador, where many young people move away for school or work, Dec. 23 is a night of big reunions. Tibb’s, Shortall said, is when people who are home from away for Christmas head to the bars to catch up and say hello.

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“You get to see people you haven’t seen in a year,” he said. “And everybody gets drunk because why not? You’ve got three or four days to get over your hangover and keep drinking and eating with friends and family.”

Folklorist Dale Jarvis, proud author of what he calls the “incredibly nerdy” Wikipedia entry on the holiday, said Tibb’s Eve is both an old linguistic expression and a special event. The holiday emerged on the south coast of Newfoundland sometime after the Second World War, he said, adding that it was a day when people could sneak a drink or two before Advent ended on Christmas.

The holiday is also based on an expression about a day that would never really occur – like the day pigs fly, Jarvis explained. “If I promised to give you something on Tibb’s Eve, you would know you would never actually get it.”

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It’s this interpretation of Tibb’s Eve – a day that would never happen – that is perhaps the most pertinent this year, especially for despondent social butterflies like Shortall who are missing out on a special night out with old friends.

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For Brenda O’Reilly, owner of O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub, Tibb’s in a pandemic means significantly fewer customers. “Outside of the George Street Festival and St. Patrick’s Day, this is one of those days that we can hang our hat on as one of our best days of the year,” she said.

O’Reilly said she began hosting Tibb’s Eve night at the pub over a decade ago, when a friend from rural Newfoundland told her about the holiday.

Growing up in Torbay, just outside St. John’s, O’Reilly had never heard of Tibb’s Eve. But she said it sounded like fun: her friend said it was a “free pass” for husbands to have a drink – or several – after finishing Christmas chores. From her friend’s telling, the night was called Tipsy’s Eve. Say that after a few beers and it sounds like “Tibb’s Eve,” she said.

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Her pub on George Street, a narrow street in downtown St. John’s filled with bars, would normally serve about 500 people for Tibb’s. But under the current public health restrictions, the dance floor is closed and she’s only selling tickets for table seating.

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“We’ll only have 120 people in the pub, and we normally hold 480,” O’Reilly said in an interview. “It’s dramatic, but we’re still doing it and it’s important to try and do as much as we can normally in this very stressful time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2020.

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