‘Any mummers ‘lowed in?’ Keeping a Christmas tradition alive in Newfoundland

Mummers at the Mummers Festival in St. John's, N.L., in 2011.

Many Canadians got their first introduction to mummering during the federal election when some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pledged to vote with their faces covered as a protest against restrictions on niqabs.

But the tradition has actually been practised, in one way or another, in Canada’s easternmost province for hundreds of years. The annual Mummers Festival held in St. John’s aims to revive the many different traditions associated with mummering all across the province, and to adapt them for modern-day Newfoundland and Labrador.

“One of the first things we wanted to do was look at traditions that were at threat, or in decline in some way, in the province,” Dale Jarvis, Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, tells Yahoo Canada News about the 2008 launch of the province’s strategy on intangible cultural heritage. “Mummering is a much-loved tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it has had its periods of ups and downs.”

What is mummering?

Simply defined, mummering (called jannying in some parts of the province) is the practice of dressing or “getting rigged up” in costumes that hide your identity, going door to door in your neighbourhood during the Christmas season, and participating in impromptu parties with music and drink with friends and neighbours.

“You’d knock on the door and ask, ‘Any mummers in tonight?’ with your voice disguised,” Margaret Parsons, who mummered in her hometown of Carmanville on Newfoundland’s northeastern coast during the 1950s and early 1960s, tells Yahoo Canada News. “I took my accordion and I played jigs and my harmonica. We danced and we sang and acted as foolish as we could be.”

The practice has evolved considerably from the 1500s, when it was brought over to N.L. by early settlers from Europe. What is referred to as “mummering” is really a variety of different traditions centred around the Christmas season, Jarvis says.

Jarvis saw the breadth of those traditions, and how different some are from the dominant popular image of mummering, while speaking with people from across the province for his 2014 book, “Any Mummers ‘Lowed In?”

“The young generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are familiar with ‘The Mummers Song,’ which came out in 1984,” he says. “I think that’s what most people think mummering is. But when you look at the tradition, it’s actually much more complicated than that.”

It’s tied with other aspects of holiday culture and the Christmas visiting tradition in N.L., like the tradition of the wren on Boxing Day, the hobby horse and ugly stick, and the Labrador Inuit tradition of the nalujuit.

And while its image as a spontaneous, light-hearted holiday party is one part of what mummering is, that doesn’t cover all of the tradition.

“I think it’s actually a very complex bit of culture,” Jarvis says. “I think sometimes people who have a nostalgic memory of it don’t know its darker history.”

There was violence associated with mummering in the earlier years, Jarvis says, culminating with a murder in the 1860s. Mummering was consequently banned in N.L., which he says significantly declined the practice in urban centres, though it survived in the coastal outport towns and in pockets in St. John’s and other larger towns.

Reviving an old tradition

The practice has declined further in the province in recent years, particularly since the 1980s, due to a variety of different factors.

“I think the nature of smaller communities had started to change,” Jarvis says. “People didn’t really know their neighbours well enough.”

Parsons would visit all the nearby towns during the 12 days of Christmas, between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6. Though everyone’s identity was disguised, she says, everyone knew each other in those days so nobody was worried about strangers coming in.

“Everybody enjoyed it, and everybody welcomed you because they loved seeing jannies coming,” she says.

Many in the province, particularly among younger generations, began to move to larger communities or away from N.L. altogether. A generation of potential mummers was somewhat lost as a result, Jarvis says.

Practical concerns also took over. Older homes usually didn’t have carpet, which made it easy to clean up after a group of mummers came through with wet boots on.

“Once everyone got modern housing and modern carpets, you didn’t want people traipsing in their rubber boots on your floors,” Jarvis says.

Though Parsons does see mummers here and there, it’s been about 20 years since mummering has been a regular part of the holiday season in her town, she says.

“In the Carmanville area, there might be 10 mummers and that might be only one or two nights during Christmas,” she says. “I wish you did see them though, because it was the most fun we had for the year.”

In the hopes of keeping the traditions of mummering alive and educating the public about the practice, Jarvis spearheaded the Mummers Festival, which launched in 2009. The festival began as an initiative between the province’s Intangible Cultural Heritage division and the Department of Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s.

“By the time we started the Mummers Festival, you could go into any tourist shop and buy something with a mummer on it,” Jarvis says. “It had become a different type of tradition. It had become a tradition that you bought, not tradition that you participated in.”

The initial intention was for the Mummers Festival to be a one-off event, Jarvis says, but the festival was so popular that it became its own entity after 2009 and today is run as a non-profit event. The Mummers Festival has won multiple awards, including being named Event of the Year for 2015 by the City of St. John’s.

“My involvement now is I can sit back and let other people run it, and I can hang out in disguise and be one of its participants,” Jarvis says.

The festival includes events and workshops that educate the public about mummering. Participants can learn to make a hobby horse, a traditional folk puppet, or a noisemaking ugly stick.

It culminates in the Mummers Parade, a participatory event where locals are encouraged to rig up and join in along the parade route. In the festival’s first year about 300 people participated in the parade, Jarvis says, and now the number is in the thousands. The route used to end at the provincial museum, The Rooms, he says. But the crowd has now outgrown its fire capacity. Similar events have also been held in other parts of the province, including Placentia, Clarenville and Bonavista.

The festival, which won a cultural tourism award from Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011, is one example of the growing importance of intangible cultural heritage to the province’s tourism industry.

“It’s a phrase that one uses to talk about those things that aren’t built heritage, that aren’t artifacts,” Jarvis says of intangible cultural heritage. “It’s the traditions and aspects of culture that make us who we are.”