Kiss the fish: Exploring the history, lore and controversy of the screech-in
The ceremony is Newfoundland's most marketed 'tradition' ... but just how traditional is it?
It's 11 p.m. on a chilly Wednesday night in May and I'm with a group of tourists packing into the warmth of Christian's Pub on George Street in downtown St. John's.
We're about to take part in one of Newfoundland's most marketed and infamous traditions: we're here to get screeched in.
As classic Newfoundland folk songs blare on the speakers, a man decked out in full fisherman's rain gear — including the sou'wester — wields an oar as he makes his way to the centre of the room in the bar's upper floor.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" announces Keith Vokey, the master screecher of the night. "I understand we've got a few come from aways here tonight who want to get screeched in to become real proper Newfoundlanders."
Vokey is the son of Merle Vokey, the man popularly thought to have developed the screech-in ceremony as it is known today.
During a traditional screech-in, come from aways — or CFAs — are supposed to recite an age-old saying, eat a piece of bologna (also known as a Newfoundland steak), kiss a cod and then take a shot of Screech rum to wash it all down.
But before I took the plunge and kissed the fish, I wanted to find out more about the history and lore of the screech-in and what it means to become an "honorary Newfoundlander."
Vokey explains that his father, a former teacher, came up with the ceremony when brainstorming ideas for a Canadian Teachers' Federation conference in 1974 to top what had been done the previous year in another province.
"Dad spoke to my grandfather and got a lot of ideas from when he was sailing up on the Labrador coast [with] things that they would do for pranks and having a bit of fun with each other," explains Vokey.
"So Dad took all of those little ideas and put them together with some songs and some jokes and some stories and created an entertaining evening out of it."
Vokey, who performs at least six screech-in ceremonies per week, says the ceremony became an instant hit. and year after year, demand grew for his father to perform them at pubs and kitchen parties all over the province.
To find out more about why the screech-in is still so popular today, I travelled to Winterton to find a folklorist who could explain why the screech-in has earned its reputation as Newfoundland's most marketed tradition.
Before Confederation, screech was considered a low-quality, bottom of the barrel, rum.- Crystal Braye
Crystal Braye, the in-house folklorist at Winterton's newly refurbished Wooden Boat Museum, said the legend surrounding the rum used for the ceremony, Screech, is just as important as the screech-in tradition itself.
"Before Confederation, screech was considered a low quality, bottom of the barrel rum. You wouldn't serve it to your guests, that kind of a harsh rum," said Braye.
Braye explained that, as legend goes, when Newfoundland hosted American military members during the Second World War, Newfoundlanders would get entertainment from watching the Americans' reactions to how harsh screech was. That's where the tradition of serving it to CFAs came from, she says.
However, after Confederation and the introduction of the liquor corporation, rum became regulated, explained Braye, and Screech today is a regular Jamaican rum bottled in Newfoundland.
"The liquor corporation kind of used the legend that screech had and branded this rum as an experience of Newfoundland," she said.
Braye, a CFA herself, also pointed out that not all Newfoundlanders are fans of the screech-in; some believe the ceremony perpetuates negative stereotypes of Newfoundlanders as "silly drunkards," she said.
Back in St. John's, I met up with freelance writer Brad Dunne, who wrote the Canadian Encyclopedia's entry on the screech-in, on George Street — in the daylight — to ask him about that side of the screech-in debate.
Dunne says he became interested in the ceremony after listening to his uncle, who was anti-screech-in.
"He thought it was a grotesque representation of Newfoundland culture and that there are a lot of private interests that are pushing this tradition to get money from tourists," said Dunne.
Dunne doesn't agree with his uncle, though, explaining that tourists and Newfoundlanders alike understand that the ceremony isn't a serious portrayal of the island's culture.
"I think people are kind of in on the joke, and I think the cool thing about this region is that it kind of subverts the stereotype in a really fun way," he said.
As slices of bologna are passed around in the upstairs room of Christian's and we all stumble through some lines about getting a big jib to draw, I can't help but admire Vokey's performance and ability to captivate us all.
Then the cod comes out.
My father was always of the mind that screech-ins belonged in every house.- Keith Vokey
Kissing the piece of dead fish may have been unpleasant, but the shot of Screech that followed wasn't much better. And just like that, I've become an honorary Newfoundlander.
Well, maybe not. But as the bar starts to clear out, I realize that I've learned quite a lot about this cool and quirky island just from the screech-in ceremony alone.
For Vokey, showing CFAs how welcoming Newfoundlanders are and breaking down the negative stereotypes about his home province are what makes performing screech-ins so much fun.
"My father was always of the mind that screech-ins belonged in every house," said Vokey. "Really, in my mind it belongs in the kitchens, it belongs in people's homes and it should be reflective of those people."