Ceremonies for crossing the Equator are famous. The Shellbacks initiate the Pollywogs to the mysteries of the deep. The ceremony is observed by sailors and other military personnel as well as cruise ships that cross the equator. While these ceremonies are quite common, there are other ceremonies that are not so well known. In the northerly province of Newfoundland where it’s frequently dark and cold in the winter, you would think that the residents would be stereotypically Canadian–mild-mannered, conservative, and reserved.
You can throw all these preconceptions away after reading on Hearing International about the tradition called Screeching in Newfoundland and, in particular, at the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Speech Pathologists and Audiologists (NLASPA). Though I have traveled around the world a number of times, this ceremony took me and some of my Audiology colleagues totally by surprise. It seems that an old friend of Hearing International, Dr. H. Gustav Mueller was presenting at the NLASPA meeting a couple of months ago. After his presentation, Gus was inducted into the Royal Order of Screechers. While not as famous as King Neptune and his Court at an Equator Crossing, The Royal Order of Screechers seems to be a Newfoundland tradition that dates back to the World War II years. The story goes something like this……..
The History of Screechers
Long before any Canadian liquor board was created, the Jamaican rum that eventually came to be known as Screech was a mainstay of the Newfoundland diet. At this time, salt fish was being shipped to the West Indies in exchange for rum. This resulted in fish becoming the national dish of Jamaicans and rum becoming the traditional drink of Newfoundlanders.
Not being overly concerned with alcohol content, these fishermen of yore often drank the rum at incredibly high strength without any attempt made to temper the taste. This delightful product might have continued indefinitely as a nameless rum except for the influx of bases and American servicemen to Newfoundland during World War II.
Seeing his host toss back the liquor with nary a quiver, an unsuspecting American adhered to local custom and downed the drink in one gulp. Among the first to arrive was a garrulous old American sergeant who pounded on the door and demanded, “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?” The name stuck and the Newfoundland liquor board immediately pounced on the name and reputation of the rum and began labeling it Famous Newfoundland Screech. Over the years, the alcohol content of Screech has been toned down and the flavor mellowed, so that in 2003, Screech Rum won a gold medal for excellent taste at the International Rum Festival. Today, Screech Rum is an international favorite amongst all rum aficionados. What are the fish for? Keep reading!
The “Screech In” Ceremony
Every Newfoundlander knows what a “Screech In” Ceremony is all about. It is the only way that those not lucky enough to be born in Newfoundland can come close to being a Newfoundlander, without having to die and be reincarnated. Those who survive the ceremony will be forever known as HONORARY NEWFOUNDLANDERS.
Materials Required for the Screech-in Ceremony:
1. The “Screech In” ceremony can be performed only by a natural-born Newfoundlander.
2. A real fish (traditionally a cod, but, since these are hard to find, any whole fish will do, the uglier the better).
3. A Sou’Wester.
4. A bottle of Screech.
The general process of a screech-in varies from pub to pub and community to community, though it often begins with the leader of the ceremony introducing himself and asking those present if they’d like to become a Newfoundlander. The proper response, of course, is a hearty “Yes b’y!” All the participant are asked to introduce themselves and say where they come from, often interrupted by commentary by the ceremony leader, jokingly poking fun at their accent or hometown. (Click on the Picture of the ceremony for an authentic video of a Screech-in Ceremony).The ceremony host (the natural-born Newfoundlander), will have the inductee stand in front of a group of witnesses while wearing the Sou’Wester (a Newfoundlander yellow rain coat). The host will then hold up a codfish (or some other fish ugly enough to replace Cod)) to the inductee so they can kiss the fish on the lips. Frozen fish are most commonly used in the screech-ins ceremonies, though occasionally a fresher specimen, if available, will be used. (The host and witnesses have final say on whether the kiss is sufficient to continue. In most cases, two or more kisses have to be administered to be acceptable to the host). Next, the host will gingerly pour a full shot of Screech rum. The inductees hold high their shot of Screech, and are then asked “Are ye a screecher?” and are taught the proper response:
“‘Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!”
With a Newfie accent, it often sounds like this: “‘Deed Oi is, mee-all cahk! An’ lahng may-yer big jib-jrah.” When translated from Newfoundlese, the saying really means, “Yes I am, my old friend, and may your sails always catch wind.” After this, the inductee is presented with the “Screech In” Certificate as proof of membership in the Royal Order of Screechers. Some screech-in traditions vary both in the order of events as well as the necessary requirements. Some ceremonies require that the screech-ee eat a piece of “Newfie steak” (a slice of baloney) or kiss a rubber puffin’s rear end. Some are also asked to stand in a bucket of salt water throughout the ceremony or to wear the Sou’wester during the recitation and the drinking of the shot. For group screech-ins, the shots and recitations are generally all done at once.
If however, you find yourself lonely in Newfoundland, and not an invited speaker for the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Speech Pathologists and Audiologists, with no one to induct you into the Royal Order of Screechers, you can get on down to one of the local pubs and, for $12 they will be most happy to make you an HONOURARY NEWFOUNDLANDER.
While there are no pictures to actually prove that Gus Mueller really was inducted into The Royal Order of Screechers, he did offer proof of membership by presenting his certificate. While the certificate only certifies that “Fun Gus” is a member, a group of Judges at Hearing International have certified its authenticity. As to the whereabouts of Dr. Mueller alias “Fun Gus” during this holiday season? One of my sources sent me this photo, and appears he was going through some event similar to Screeching during one of his visits to Germany”