By Candice Walsh
A mummer, by definition, is “a masked or costumed merrymaker, especially at a festival.” The origins of mummering are a little hazy and the tradition is scattered around the globe: the Brits refer to it as “mumming” and the Philadelphia Mummers Parade on New Years’ Day is an extravaganza of elaborate pageantry in the style of Carnival or Mardi Gras.
Newfoundland’s tradition is a little different from most, and only takes place during Christmas (the exception sometimes being Come Home Year celebrations).
Traditional mummering in Newfoundland—rarely practiced these days—involved people disguised in outrageous gear and parading from house to house. The idea was to hide your identity: men would dress as women (and vice versa), faces were covered, jackets stuffed, and mittens often worn on feet. Even voices would be disguised with “mummer talk”. Residents would be greeted at the door with “Any mummers ‘lowed in?”
Someone would bring an accordion and there’d be a kitchen party complete with dancing and drinking that lasted until the hosts guessed the mummers’ identities or the booze and food ran out.
In small-town or rural Newfoundland, the visitors were unlikely to be strangers. But you can imagine why mummering was outlawed for awhile (between the 1960s and 1980s): droves of masked people wandering into your house and wreaking havoc could be a safety concern in larger communities.
The video for “The Mummers’ Song” (officially “Any Mummers Allowed In?”), by Newfoundland duo Simani, probably explains traditional mummering best.
Nowadays, a tamer version of mummering is seeing a resurgence thanks to local folklorists like Dale Jarvis. The annual Mummers Festival in St. John’s brings history back to life during the entire month of December. You can attend workshops to construct your own hobby horse or “ugly stick,” learn how to mummer from “pros” and attend the grand finale, the Mummers Parade.
Anyone can participate in the parade, and no costume is too outlandish. Wear an oversized bra on your head and put your undergarments outside your clothes. Then join in the Kitchen Party at the Rooms Art Museum, dance up a storm, and make some new mummer friends!
St. John’s 2011 Mummer’s Parade takes place on December 17.