As Christmas quickly approaches, many Canadians are gearing up for a joyous period of spending time with family, gift-giving, eating delicious baked goods, attending Christmas mass, and hopefully unwinding by curling up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate. Each person who celebrates Christmas has some kind of activity or tradition that is special to themself, their family, religion, or geographical region. Canada’s most easterly province, Newfoundland and Labrador, has a variety of unique Christmas traditions that may be seen as unusual or quirky to outsiders but have a long cultural history on the island. One of these traditions is the idea of the mummer.
Every year in Newfoundland and Labrador as Christmas rolls around you have the chance of seeing someone dressed up in an outlandish outfit. You may witness oddly padded figures, shoes on the wrong feet, underwear worn on the outside, and faces completely hidden by masks or old pieces of lace. These characters go by many different names depending on what part of the province you’re in: jannies, darbies, oonchicks, but the most common name for these personas is mummers.
Mummers are an old Newfoundland Christmas tradition whose origins are hard to trace. Although the exact origins are unknown, it is said that they probably came to the island with the first settlers from Britain and Ireland. The idea of dressing up in disguises and travelling from house to house during Christmas exists in different forms and under various names throughout the world in places such as England, Ireland, the Caribbean, and Philadelphia. For many years, Newfoundland was mostly isolated from the rest of the world, filled with outport communities that were secluded from each other. This allowed the tradition to change and create unique traits in each community.
The mummers, groups of friends and family members dressed in their disguises, would travel from house to house during the 12 days of Christmas. Upon entering the houses the mummers often perform for their audience with a variety of jokes, dances, songs, musical instruments, or recitations. The host would have to guess the identity of the mummers and once identified, they would remove their masks. The hosts may offer drinks and food or withhold them if a mummer’s identity could not be solved. Figuring out a mummer’s identity was a big part of the house visit and mummers often did everything they could to conceal who they were, such as using a different gait when they walked or altering their voices. It was expected that if the host couldn’t identify you, you would reveal yourself before leaving or become the subject of small-town community gossip for days.
Unfortunately, the mummer tradition wasn’t all innocent fun. Hidden behind masks and clothing that conceal your identity allowed people to break the law and become violent without getting caught. Some communities also had a hobby horse to prowl the streets– a ghastly figure whose costume might be made from actual bones and who’d chase anyone who wasn’t dressed as a mummer. In 1860, a Bay Roberts man was killed by a group of mummers and the tradition was banned by the provincial government until 1990. Despite this, many communities where there weren’t any police to enforce the law, especially along the Southern Shore and Northern Peninsula, the tradition continued.
The tradition didn’t really start to die out until the end of the 20th century. The collapse of fisheries, the changing economy, resettlement, and migration meant that your neighbours may be actual strangers. People normally don’t take well to masked strangers knocking on their door during the night. The release of the iconic Christmas carol “The Mummers Song” in 1982 briefly revitalized the tradition in different parts of the province but it remained largely unpractised.
Throughout the late 20th and early 21st century, mummering remained mostly dead in the public sphere until in 2009 a collaboration between the Heritage Society and Memorial University’s Folklore Department brought the Mummers Festival to the province. The festival commences with a mummers parade where anybody is free to dress up in disguise and join in. The festival includes workshops on how to make hobby horses and Ugly Sticks, a traditional Newfoundland instrument made out of household and tool shed items. Presentations about the history and traditions of mummering are also given throughout the festival. The festival has continued annually without interruption since its inception with events being held virtually this year.
Mummering and mummers mean a lot of different things in Newfoundland in the modern-day. It is a staple of Newfoundland folklore, a Christmas house visit, a performance for summer tourists, the topic of a popular song, and the inspiration for many Newfoundland artists. While working at a museum gift shop last summer I think I sold some type of mummer-inspired craft at least once a day and explained the tradition to every person visiting from the mainland. A lot of people like to talk about the tradition dying out in the modern age, but the continuing discussion and presence of mummers prove that this isn’t true. To me, the mummers represent the pride of Newfoundlanders in their traditions and desire to preserve our heritage. The survival of the mummering tradition despite a ban that lasted over 100 years through two World Wars, the Great Depression, Confederation, industry collapse, resettlement, and economic troubles prove that Newfoundlanders are determined to keep the tradition going.
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