Posted by: alexhickey | December 8, 2013

Mummering in St. Jacques ©

Mummering has recaptured the imagination of Newfoundlanders again in recent years.  The emergence of a Mummers Festival in St. John`s is an example of this.   The popularity of The Mummers Song by Simani as well as the book, The

mummers son book by ian wallace based upon song lyrics by bud davidge

Mummers Song Book

Mummers Song, by Ian Wallace illustrating Bud Davidge`s lyrics is another.  Look for images of mummers in paintings, sculpture, on coffee mugs, Tee Shirts, and just about any merchandise you can imagine as evidence.  Yet, even though there is always a contingent of Mummers at the Fortune Bay Dance in Mount Pearl at the end of November each year and at the English Hr. West Lions Club Mummer’s Dance on Old Christmas Day, there is limited evidence that Mummering as a social practice in communities has re-emerged in our culture.  What we seem to be witnessing is Mummering as public spectacle in the tradition of the Mummers Play.

The Mummer’s Plays have a long and deserved respect in our history reaching back to the days before our ancestors came here from England, Ireland and other parts of Europe and North America. They are traditional texts involving a short performance by a half dozen or more people playing the roles of King George, The Doctor, The Turkish Knight, and others. It was performed in communities all around the coastline for generations with adaptations to local characters and events.  Most of the time, it was performed inside the house of a host in the community as an impromptu event where those performing the play sought entry and proceeded to establish a space within the room to deliver the play.  Other times it was performed as part of a Christmas Concert in the community. The spontaneity of the Mummers Play is not something that can easily be replicated as a public event intended for subscription-based audience consumption.  Though, The Mummers Troupe, a St. John`s Theatre Troupe created a phenomenon during the seventies’ and eighties with their innovative treatment and performances of the Mummers Play, it still remained public spectacle.  Public events with a mummers theme have a legitimate history in the United Kingdom and in the United States with The Mummers Parade in Philadelphia being a long standing example. This type of event has sowed the seeds for a great deal of the current interest in Mummering as cultural expression.

My experiences and exposures to Mummering has been as social activity carried out among friends, family and community as opposed to performance of a play as such.  Throughout Newfoundland communities the practice of putting on a disguise and visiting friends and relatives existed independent of the mummer’s plays.   Known in some parts of the province as Janneying,  Fooling, or Nalujuit, we knew it simply as Mummering.  It involved dressing up in disguises intended to trick or fool your neighbour or other acquaintance in the community into thinking you were someone other than yourself.   Often this meant switching gender by disguising one’s body through wearing fake body parts and clothing of the opposite sex.  Faces were disguised by donning an old pillow case or lace curtain over the head with appropriate spaces cut for eyes to see to navigate while inside a house.  Outside, the facial disguise was raised for safety reasons when walking in the dark. Occasionally someone wore a manufactured mask or an improvised mask made from cardboard, however, that was not the norm.

three children mummering in costume

Children Mummering

Children did their Mummering early in the evening just after the supper hour and were limited to particular sections of the community as in the parental direction, “You can go from Mrs. Whalen’s house to Mrs. Evan’s house then you must come home.   You can dress up again another night and go to some other houses.”  Beginning on the evening of Boxing Day  and on through the rest of the Christmas Holidays until Old Christmas Day, weather permitting and with parental permission, we attempted to visit every house in the harbour. Starting at the eastern end of St. Jacques where my grandparents lived we would make our way over the road parallel to the old Catholic Church, down over Clinton’s Hill and along the road to Dyett’s Hill; a side trip down the Lower Road, then across Pittman’s Brook Bridge, past Red Rail Hill, Cellar Hill and the Anglican Church until we reached the Barachoix Point. Beyond there we made our way around the Barachoix and over on the Beach.  With all variables considered we usually took the full twelve days of Christmas to achieve that visitation around the harbour.

We carried a split, a piece of dry wood used to start fires in a stove, which was used to knock on the door to each house we visited.  When someone came to the door, in your best falsetto voice or in a voice spoken on an inhaling breath, ingressive speech,  you valiantly stressed, “Any Mummers Allowed In?”  In some parts of the province this was known as mummer-talk or janny –talk.  An entry in the online version of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English has this description:

janny-talk: distorted or ingressive speech of a mummer used as a means of disguising one’s identity.

1969 Christmas Mumming in Nfld 211 When the janneys come to a house they wish to visit, they open, without knocking, the storm-door, stick their heads inside the ‘porch’ and ‘sing out’: ‘Any janneys in tonight?’ in the high-pitched, squeaky voice that janneys always use—’janney-talk.’ T 257-66 Oh yes, ’twas queer talk—janney talk. Some people can’t talk and some of ’em can, you know. Some of them make a queer talk, draw in their voice, and make a queer sound.

two children in mummering costume

Children Mummering

Rarely did you get invited into every house.  Sometimes an adult would answer the door only to be told the family wasn’t finished dinner or the baby was asleep and you cannot come in tonight.  Despite this we would manage to get inside almost every house in the community eventually for we dressed up every night we could and made our rounds, targeting houses that refused us on earlier nights.  When multiple groups were going around, it was not uncommon to maliciously drop a few hints as to who might be among the group coming behind yours.  As children we were treated to cookies, candies, and in some houses Purity Strawberry Syrup and dark fruit cake.  There are stories of mummers playing tricks on those who refused them entry; however, that was not our experience in St. Jacques.

Given the small number of children living in St. Jacques when I was a child and for every generation since then, it now seems highly probable that our hosts could determine rather quickly who we were; however, to their credit, they played along with the guessing game until all identities were learned and all faces exposed.  Such was Mummering for children in St. Jacques.

adult mummer dancing with an adult playing an accordion

Adult Mummers Dancing

Adults reflected much of the same presentations of disguise with somewhat greater emphasis on blurring gender identity.   Efforts for men to be perceived as women took on epic proportions with elaborate constructions to mimic breasts and to accentuate derrieres.  The most bizarre apparatus I ever heard of among women’s disguise efforts was the wearing of a ‘sheep’s purse” between her legs to fool even a boldly groping host.

Typical Mummer Costume

Typical Mummer Costume

Adult visitations occurred later in the evening with greater emphasis on merriment fueled by an accordion, fiddle or guitar and the consumption of either home brewed beverages or Demerara rum doled out in shot-size portions.   The guessing game was very similar to that of child mummers with a little more edginess  attached through sexual innuendo much as is seen in the Mummers Plays.   As the night wore on and the merriment levels of mummers increased it was not uncommon to see the lights suddenly go out as a group of boisterous mummers approached a house.

In every respect Mummering was about celebration of community and social interaction for all ages.  It has its origins in our European heritage and its distinctive flavour in our social nature.  As children we were provided opportunity through Mummering to interact with adults whom we would only casually encounter during the rest of the year; we learned to function as a group where everyone in the group was equal and where everyone looked out for each other. We occupied our evenings engaged in interaction and play, socializing and entertaining, and being children in a culture where a social custom transcended age and social status.

In St. Jacques, as with many rural communities around the coasts, fathers worked in the fishing industry and other occupations which took them away from home for lengthy periods of time throughout the year. However, Christmas was pilgrimage time when all roads led to home!  After being away for months Mummering offered everyone an opportunity to visit, celebrate and catch up on news and missed events as well as blow off a bit of steam in the presence of friends.

Listen to Bud Davidge sing what has become the definitive song about Mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Resources you might enjoy reading.

Web Articles and Stories

Mummering Flourishes in N. L. Homes, CBC, December 23, 2010

Mummering, a Newfoundland Christmas Tradition, The Daily Planet, by Adam Carter, December 02,  2011

Mummering: A Storied Newfoundland Tradition, The Weather Network, by Daniel Martins, December 27, 2012

Mummering on the Rock : A Unique NL Tradition, by Sharon Martin, NL Interactive, December 2007

Mummers & Pagans & Wrens — Oh My!, by Christopher Simpson, Reprinted from Toronto Irish News, 1997

The Mummering Man, CBC Land and Sea Episode, January 1, 2012

Mummering and the Performing Arts in Newfoundland

Mummering in Nova Scotia, by Darcy Rhyno, Life asa Human, The Human Interest magazine for Evolving Minds, Jun 24, |

Journal Articles

 Craig T. Palmer, Mummers and Real Strangers: The Effects of Diminished Isolation on Newfoundland Christmas House Visiting, Vol 8, No 2Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1992

Joy Fraser, Mummers On Trial – Mumming, Violence and the Law in Conception Bay and St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1831-1863, Shima: The International Journal into Research into Island Cultures, Vol 3, No. 2. pp. 70-88  http://www.shimajournal.org/previous.html

Diane Tye, At Home and Away: Newfoundland Mummers and the Transformation of Difference, Material Culture Review, Volume 68, Fall 2008

Andrea and David Spalding, The Mummers and the Paupers, Canadian Folk Music Bulletin, Volume 28.3, September 1994

Books

Chris Brookes. A Public Nuisance: A History of the Mummers Troupe. St. John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland 1988. 240 pp $19.95 paper, illus.

Halpert, Herbert and Story, G.M. Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. , Ryan, D.W.S. (ed.)

Ryan, D. W. S. Christmas in Newfoundland and Labrador, Jesperson Press, 1988,

Margaret Robertson, The Newfoundland Mummers Christmas House Visit, A Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of a Masters of Arts Degree, Memorial University, 1979

Pocius, Gerald L. A Place to Belong: Community Order and Everyday Space in Calvert, Newfoundland, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1991


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