Mummering in Newfoundland: A Christmas Tradition
What Is Mummering?
Mummering is a traditional Christmas amusement that involves participants—known as mummers—dressing up in wild costumes, donning masks or wearing veils over their faces, and distorting their voices, all in an attempt to avoid being recognized. These Mummers then go from house to house playing music, dancing, telling jokes, performing skits, and generally acting foolish. The residents of the homes being visited reward their entertainers with food and drink. In St. John's, the capital city of Newfoundland, as well as in other larger communities, mummering would, at one time, have also included a Mummers Parade (a practice that has been revived in recent years) and the performance of a mummers' Play.
Mummering (or "mumming" as it is sometimes called) seems to have existed in some form or another since the beginning of recorded history. References to the practice can be found in the writings of ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The practice made its way to Europe in the Middle Ages and was eventually brought to North America by European settlers. In Newfoundland, these settlers consisted primarily of English and Irish immigrants. Though it is not known exactly when Mummering began on the Island, the earliest written record of the practice dates back to 1819.
Its Near Extinction
In the small coastal communities that exist all around the Island of Newfoundland, the practice was a relatively innocent and harmless amusement. In st. John's, and some of the larger towns and centers throughout the province however, it evolved into something a little more politically charged. In these more populated areas tensions, caused by political and religious differences, would be building all year. When Mummers, fueled by excessive alcohol consumption and made brave by their concealed identities, would take to the streets at Christmas time the combination of friction between groups with differing beliefs, relative anonymity provided by the costumes, and widespread drunkenness would inevitably lead to violence. In June of 1861, following the murder of a Bay Roberts man at the hands of Masked Mummers the previous December, the courts took steps to prevent the practice.
On June 25, 1861 the "Act to make further provisions for the prevention of nuisances" was introduced. This law made it illegal to wear a disguise in public, effectively bringing the practice of Mummering, at least in the capital city and other larger centers, to an end. Mummering did, however, continue in Newfoundland's many outport communities, at least until the mid twentieth century, when it almost died out completely.
Then, in the 1980's, Mummering experienced a massive resurgence, thanks in a large part to a local musical duo, Simani, and their 1982 Christmas recording "The Mummers Song".
The song opens with an elderly lady reflecting nostalgically on Christmases past, and how much she misses Mummers, when there's a knock on her door. The rest of the tune is a narrative describing a visit by mummers. With this lighthearted holiday piece Simani revived a holiday tradition that had almost disappeared completely. Though the song focuses solely on the house visit aspect of Mummering the interest that it generated in the practice as a whole has brought all aspects of the tradition back into the popular culture of Newfoundland, all be it with some major changes.
Even though the house to house visit still involves some alcohol consumption, Mummuering is no longer the drunken free-for-all that had nearly eradicated it in Newfoundland more than 150 years ago. Today it is a much more family oriented activity. In 2009, the Heritage Foundation Of Newfoundland and Labrador established the annual Mummers Festival. This annual family holiday celebration takes place over a two week period in December, and includes a series of delightful family activities such as the "Mummer Memory Mug Up", and the "Ugly Stick workshop". All of which lead up to the main event, the Mummers Parade.
Mummering today is as every bit a part of a traditional Newfoundland Christmas as turkey dinner. Though much of it may look a lot different than it did in the early 1800's, much remains the same, and any changes have certainly been for the better. Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in Newfoundland some Christmas season be sure to check out the Mummers festival, and catch the Mummers parade. Perhaps you may even be fortunate enough to be invited along on a traditional home visit for a Scuff and a Scoff (for translation see article, "Newfoundland English", the Colorful Collection of Dialects Known as "Newfinese".)
Questions & Answers
What is the reason for the horses head on sticks that some people carry for Newfoundland Christmas traditions?
The horses head on a stick dates back to the 1400's and was a traditional child's toy for centuries. Known as a hobbyhorse it consisted of a crafted horses head tied to a stick which the child would pretend to ride. It is carried in mummers parades as it was for hundreds of years a favorite gift for kids at Christmas.
© 2017 Stephen Barnes