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Mummering: A storied Newfoundland tradition

Daniel Martins, staff writer
December 27, 2012 — December brings out the masked, revelling mummers in Newfoundland, continuing a time-honoured tradition

The clothes make the mummer -- the most outlandish and rag-tag, the better. Courtesy: Mummers Festival
The clothes make the mummer -- the most outlandish and rag-tag, the better. Courtesy: Mummers Festival

You hear a knock on the door one night in December, open it up, and there they are: The mummers, a rag-tag group of boisterous singers and dancers. 

They might be somebody you know, but you'd have to work to figure out who: The whole lot of them are in disguise. 

They're dressed in sacks, or old curtains, or old coats, adorned with every manner of decoration from bras to tinsel, and every other combination in between.

Their faces are covered in burlap bags, old beer boxes, sunglasses, cardboard, fake beards, absolutely anything would do.

"Any mummers 'lowed in?" they might say, taking care to disguise their voices.

And if you let them in, expect a party and be happy for the chance: It's an old tradition that has ebbed and flowed throughout much of the island's history.

"It disappeared completely off the map for years, basically, in the 20th century," Dr. Patrick Byrne at Memorial University tells the Weather Network.

"It was actually banned ... in St. John's at some point in the nineteenth century, because it led to vandalism, and there was all kinds of class things as well."

Growing up in a small community in Newfoundland, Byrne remembers the tradition quite well, especially in its heyday.

It was an excuse to dress up, have a bit of fun, and do some signing and dancing as the troupe would move from house to house.

Once allowed in, their hosts would have to guess their identities -- not too difficult in a community where everybody knows everybody -- asking questions and receiving outlandish answers in return.

They might have a fiddle or accordion, and do a song and dance. Once identified and unmasked, it was time for a little party, with food and drink provided by the host.

"It was expected that they would be welcomed, and it would be expected that the host would treat them, if they had anything to treat them with. Alcohol wasn't always that plentiful in those days, certainly not legal alcohol," Byrne recalls, wryly.

Not everyone would let them in, or be expected to. 

The troupe might pass a house by if its owner was known to be ill, or there was a new baby. 

But if you were just being cranky -- there might be consequences.

Mummers, singing and dancing have always gone well together. Courtesy: Mummers Festival
Mummers, singing and dancing have always gone well together. Courtesy: Mummers Festival

"To not allow the mummers access to the house, meant that they had certain  liberties to get back at you, as it were," Byrne says.

"One of the most notorious -- it was not unusual for some young fellow to shimmy up a ladder to the top of the house, and stuff a sack or something in the chimney, which of course meant the house would fill full of smoke really quickly. And there were no consequences to that, except you had to send a lot of time cleaning."

The tradition was brought to Newfoundland by settlers from England and Northern Ireland, Byrne says, and thrived for many years in the province's small communities, although banned in St. John's in the nineteenth century.

Although the British version also involved plays, in Newfoundland the tradition that survives is mostly the house-to-house party and performance.

There are also mummer's dances in some parts of the Atlantic Provinces. In Newfoundland's capital, it takes the form of a mummers' festival and parade close to Christmas, begun by a community group a half-decade ago.

"The whole reason we started this thing is that mummering in Newfoundland -- sometimes it gets popular and then it might wane for a bit," the parade's organizer, Ryan Davis, says.

"We figured if we did something like a mummers festival, it might help encourage people to take up the tradition again over the 12 days of Christmas."

Around 500 mummers took part in the parade last year.

While Davis himself dresses up and goes mummering with his friends, he says many people in St. John's, the province's largest city, aren't too keen on letting strangers in their homes.

"I guess there is that possibility that anyone could be coming into your door," he says. "So I think that's why something like a mummers parade actually works well in bigger cities and towns. It does allow people to play a little bit with disguises ... and still feel safe and secure." 

He adds the colourful cavalcade is also a good introduction to the old tradition for children.

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