ST. JOHN’S, N.L. –
Hundreds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will kick off the holidays this Saturday with Tibb’s Eve celebrations, a distinctive local celebration with an interesting and unexpected history.
Tibb’s Eve has become an unofficial provincial holiday — and big business for downtown St. John’s pubs and bars — since it caught on in the capital city about two decades ago.
It’s a night of dancing, singing and revelry that comes every Dec. 23. Brenda O’Reilly, the owner of O’Reilly’s Pub on George Street in St. John’s, says she was the first bar owner on that iconic strip to offer a Tibb’s Eve celebration.
“We’ve been doing it now for about 20 years, and it has become a thing,” she said. “As soon as I put the tickets on sale, they sell really quickly and they sell out every year.”
The origins of the would-be holiday go way back — to British theatre of the 1600s – according to folklorist and executive director of Heritage NL Dale Jarvis.
It was a contradiction: Tibb’s Eve wasn’t a real day, in fact it couldn’t be a real day, because a “Tibb” was a nickname given to people who were decidedly unsaintly.
“A Tibb was someone of somewhat loose morals,” Jarvis said. “So in plays of the day, a Saint Tibb was kind of an impossible thing.”
Dale Jarvis is a folklorist, an author and the executive director of Heritage NL in St. John’s. (Garrett Barry/CTV)
In some Christian traditions, every saint would be celebrated with a feast, and every feast would have an eve — a day before.
But because a Tibb was no saint, they’d get no feast — and there’d be no Tibb’s Eve.
“If I owed you money, I might say, ‘Oh I’ll pay you back on Saint Tibb’s Eve,'” Jarvis explained. “Meaning you’d probably never, ever see that money again.”
That Old World usage caught on in Newfoundland and Labrador, Jarvis said, and as time went on, this impossible day got more and more defined.
“A day that might exist somewhere between the old year and the new year,” he explained. “It over time kind of became associated with the Christmas season, somehow.”
O’Reilly said Tibb’s Eve wasn’t an occasion that she grew up with, but when she heard of the tradition from a friend — celebrated predominately in parts of rural Newfoundland — she put plans in motion right away.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, Kelly, I’m stealing that,’ and the very next year I did it for our first annual Tibb’s Eve party,” she said.
Now, she said, just about everywhere has some sort of Tibb’s Eve celebration.
A modern folklore story that accompanies the holiday says it’s a chance to see your friends before other Christmas obligations take over.
“It’s one of our best nights of the year,” said O’Reilly — great help for a bar industry that she believes has not fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said the bar sees returning guests for the Tibb’s Eve party every year — with a visit from Santa, a celebration of ugly Christmas sweaters and live music.
“I think sometimes we have this idea that tradition is fixed, that things always happen the way they used to happen,” said Jarvis, “but tradition is actually constantly evolving.”