|Mummering in Newfoundland. Artist: Ellen Jean Wareham|
"Any mummers allowed in" is just as familiar in NL as "Merry Christmas". This ancient Christmas tradition has a colorful history in our province and its origins are very interesting.
The "Mummering" or "Jannying" tradition is currently still very active in Newfoundland. There are two Mummering customs - one in which plays are performed, as in Britain, and the other involving wandering from house to house in disguise during the twelve days of Christmas.
However, mummering in larger populated areas such as St John's was very different than small outport villages and towns. During the 19th century, it was customary in Newfoundland during the Christmas festivities for people to dance through the streets dressed in outlandish costumes and disguised in various ways. On their way they would engage in rough horseplay, slapping at passers-by with whips or inflated bladders.
Mummering, however, was often abused. The use of disguises permitted those of poorer classes to harass the wealthy merchant classes or often allowed rival religious sects the opportunity to vent their hostility while in masquerade. Newfoundland historian D.W. Prowse observed that "Men were often beaten badly for old grievances by the fools."
On January 5, 1861, Governor A. Bannerman reported in a letter to Colonial Secretary John Kent that one "Isaac Mercer was murdered by some person or persons in disguise, unknown" in the community of Bay Roberts in Conception Bay.
According to Newfoundland historian Paul O'Neill, Mercer's party had been waylaid by mummers on the evening of December 28, 1860.
Mercer's death resulted in the passage of a Bill, which prohibited the wearing of any disguise or mask in a public place in Newfoundland without direct permission of a magistrate. Rural mummering continued, however, and P.K. Devine observed that the law prohibiting mummering was rarely enforced north of Conception Bay.
On the other hand mummering in the outports and smaller towns was carried out with much trust between the visitors and the hosts. The decline of mummering was in part due to the connection of many small once isolated communities to larger centers. This allowed for a broader social life during the Christmas season and there were more things to do. The nineteen sixties saw a revival of the custom and the Mummers song by the group Simani caused this once popular tradition to be revived. (Listen to the Song).
During the twelve days of Christmas, people would disguise themselves with old articles of clothing and visit the homes of their friends and neighbors. They would cover up their faces with a hood, scarf or mask . Men would sometimes dress as women and women as men. The mummers carried their own musical instruments to play, sing and dance in every house they visited. The host and hostess would serve either a Christmas cake with a glass of syrup or blueberry wine or grog of whiskey.
When the mummers arrived everyone in the house would try to guess their identity. As each one was identified they uncovered their faces, but if their true identity was not guessed they would not have to unmask.
Mummering would continue for several nights in a row and the mummers would once again go from house to house but this time with a different disguise.
I came across this poem written by a Mr. Anderson. A first name was not given. If anyone out there is familiar with the author please let us know.
Mummering at Christmas
For years and years it always was
The peak of my ambition-
To masquerade at Christmas time
But fear of being known and named
Had dampened by decision-
My greatest social drawback is
My retiring disposition.
Last Christmas, after many hours
Of pro and contemplating,
I realized the time had come
To quit procrastinating,
And so I started to explore,
My long neglected attic;
(I disregarded damp and drafts
So bad for my rheumatic)
And there I found all strewn around,
In hopeless disarrangement,
Claw-hammer coats, hats, bonnets, cloaks,
And every kind of raiment-
Ulsters and capes that one time draped
The forms of family members-
Those were the rage in the good old days
Of Brookings, Slades, and Bremners.
I found kid gloves and fancy vests,
And all the other necessaries,
With beaver hats and pearl gray spats,
To make up the accessories,
From this outmodel finery
I made a grand selection
And when my costume was complete
My guise defied detection.
But alas; before I reached the door
My new born courage failed me,
My knees began to tremble,
And the same old doubts assailed me,
So I decided to prepare
With sugar and hot water
A parting shot, sweet, strong, and hot,
Of my good friend Johnny Walker.
Thus fortified I sailied forth
Quite nonchalant and smiling,
I felt as good as any man
Inside of Admiral's Island,
And everywhere from house to house,
My welcome was quite hearty-
That night I was an honoured guest
At many a Christmas party.
Now as a rule I don't play bridge,
The game with panic fills me,
I must confess I can't finesse,
And the shocking silence kills me,
But when you're "In" with Lady Luck,
To know the game is needless,
I made a slam in a no trump hand,
And left the foursome speechless.
I next joined friends who were singing gems
From a popular operetta,
And to disguise my baritone
I faked a high falsetto,
When they failed to recognize my voice
My spirits grew ecstatic,
And I sang "The Star of Logy Bay"
As though it were a classic.
A little later on I met
A group of merry dancers,
"You're just in time" they greeted me,
We need one more for lancers
Although I hadn't danced in years
(I never was gymnastic)
With a lady fair I'd admire for years
I tripped the light fantastic.
So thus it went I played and sang,
I danced with gay abandon,
And whispers as to who I was
Were hazarded at random,
But quick as one would guess a name,
Another one would veto,
And though it all I'm proud that I
Preserved my Incognito.
NL Interactive would like to wish everyone A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Sharon Martin, NL Interactive