Mummers? If you live in America, and have heard that term before, it’s likely in connection with the annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade. While they may share some distant relatives, that New Years parade in the City of Brotherly Love is a far cry from the Christmastime tradition of Mummering in Newfoundland. Dating back over 200 years, imported from Irish and English settlers, Newfoundland Mummers don’t masquerade like their American cousins, who dress up as someone else. The tradition is instead rooted in disguise, using everyday clothing in unconventional ways to conceal one’s identity. Common techniques include pillow-case face masks, lace veils, layers of bulky stuffed coats, mismatched gloves, and gender smokescreens like skirts on men and bras worn over outerwear. Once disguised, a group of mummers will travel unannounced to a house in their community, and if allowed to enter, start dancing and playing music. The host provides snacks and drinks, while trying to guess the identities of each visitor. Easier said than done, as the mummers not only disguise their bodies but distort their voices or refuse to speak. Once everyone has been named, or if the heat inside makes the layered costume untenable, the mummers are revealed and group moves on to another house.
Mummering is like Halloween, meets Christmas caroling, meets Guess Who?, tinged with the inherent risk of letting a group of masked strangers into your house. Historically, this danger has been more than theoretical, with violent acts by mummers leading to an outright ban in 1862. But today, mummering in Newfoundland has been revived, in the way that folk traditions often find second or third acts after generational gaps have mythologized and sanitized them to fit into contemporary culture. Mummering is mainstream, with tourist shops full of mummer figurines, marketed as a quirky folk tradition that’s unique to Newfoundland.
The 1980’s pop hit “Any Mummers Allowed In?” by Simani is credited with fueling this resurgence, and remains the most popular Christmas song in Newfoundland. Watch the music video below and you’ll not only get the song stuck in your head but have a much better understanding of what this lo-fi, community-scale tradition is all about.
Another sign of the mummer comeback is the Mummers Festival, cerated in 2009 as a joint effort between the Memorial University Folklore Department and the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. They host numerous events and workshops throughout December, culminating in a parade that has grown beyond St. John’s to include 12 other communities throughout the province.
In 2016, Haikai magazine published an article called Return of the Mummers by Emily Urquhart, who holds a PhD in folklore from Memorial University. Her piece situates mummering historically and reflects on the contemporary resurgence, highlighting the popularity of the Mummers Festival. She brings up an interesting point that while the parade brings awareness and accessibility to newcomers, real mummering relies on strong connections within a local community. After all, to see through the disguise and guess someone’s identity requires knowing them quite well.
“Mummers act like strangers, but the irony is that, besides the recent mummering festivals, an outsider—a real stranger—couldn’t take part in the door-to-door custom. The host needs to be familiar with the person under the disguise in order for the give and take of this folk drama to succeed.”Emily Urquhart (source)
Another fascinating source of exposure to Newfoundland mummering is a 2-hour radio documentary by Chris Brookes. Hosted on a page with numerous mummer resources, the documentary is split into two: part one focuses on historical and contemporary mummering in Newfoundland, while part two follows the tradition to Ireland, England, and Philadelphia.
In the Newfoundland segment we learn about a different kind of urban mummering centered around the Mummers play, with a complex plot including sword fights and resurrection. The docuemntary follows a group of mummers as they barge into a stranger’s house to enact the play, which seems like more of a theatrical home invasion than the comparatively gentle question of “Any Mummers allowed in?”. Luckily, the reaction from the unsuspecting hosts quickly turns from bewilderment to delight; they recognize this tradition even if they haven’t experienced it firsthand. That shared cultural understanding allows an unplanned mummer takeover to be welcomed as a seasonable surprise.
“In today’s digital culture, mummering stands apart: there’s little planning involved, it happens face to (veiled) face, it’s unscripted and entirely spontaneous.”Emily Urquhart (source)
That’s the beauty of mummering: it’s both recognized and unexpected, infused with spontaneity, confusion, and community. Whether it’s a scripted play in the living room of a St. John’s townhouse, or a guessing game in the kitchen of an outport salt box, it also just seems like fun. It’s cold, it’s Christmastime, let’s dress up like crazy and give our neighbors something to talk about.
Mummering on Crosstalk
A final bit about Mummering, the CBC show Crosstalk had a good discussion and call-in show on the topic on December 13, 2019. The show aired the day before the Mummers Parade in St. John’s and includes numerous Newfoundlanders sharing their stories.