Posted by: alexhickey | December 19, 2020

Of Cakes, Ales and Mummers 2020 © Alex Hickey 12/19/2020

cakes and Ales Christmas


Ah, there’s big ones and small ones, tall ones and thin,

There’s boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men,

With humps on their backs and mitts on their feet,

My blessed we’ll die with the heat. (Bud Davidge, Any Mummers Allowed In?)

The Christmases of our childhood’s exist somewhere between memory and nostalgia.  Memory is the ability to record information about people, things, places, event, feelings, etc., which we can recall at will later.  Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a yearning for things of the past, a longing for familiar surroundings, people and events; frequently manifested as a longing for home.  Hence the theme of many Christmas songs and stories – there’s no place like home!  That theme has amplified poignancy this Christmas of 2020 as we diligently adapt our lives to an imposed reality of smaller gatherings, restricted or forbidden travel, feelings of isolation and distance, the like of which most of us have never experienced in our lifetimes. The strength of our collective human spirit, fueled by memory and nostalgia, will get us through the Christmas Season and into the hope and promise of a New Year.

Our rituals and traditions are being challenged by 2020. This year we will have to reach to Christmases past and draw from them those endearments and treasures which warm our hearts and bring smiles to our lips, particularly when seeing familiar faces before us and no ability to reach out and stroke a finger across a warm cheek, wipe away a pent-up tear or brush away a stray hair.

In 1859, Charles Dickens, in his opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities set in the late 1700’s, wrote:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

How could he have known about 2020?

Sixteen years earlier Dickens published a story we know as The Christmas Carol.  In that story Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted with three Christmas ghosts – the ghost of Past, Present and Future.  From the ghost of Christmas Past he learned that the simple things in life like love of family, laughter and the support of friends all have value. From the ghost of Christmas Present he learned that no matter how bad things are we can still find joy and reason to celebrate. The ghost of Christmas Future helps him see that our actions have consequences and without good memories of our life lived, nostalgia has no home.

With those things in mind I reflected on where we are this year, where we’ve been and where we are going; something I know I am sharing with many others.  My thoughts, filtered through memory and nostalgia, led me to consider two Christmas memories – the baking and brewing leading up to the twelve days of Christmas and the gender-bending practices integral to the art of Mummering!

In the early days of December, behind the kitchen stove on a bench to elevate if off the cold floor, there would sit a small wooden cask, its staves held together by metal hoops.  A gleaming taut white cotton cloth covered its open top hiding the mixture of water, hops, malt, yeast and sugar.  It did little to keep the pungent odour from escaping and permeating the downstairs section of the house.  However, it did keep our inquisitive cat from poking its whiskers into the brew.  While the concoction brewed, the stove was kept burning all through the night to maintain fermentation.  Those were some of the warmest winter nights I recall in a house without central heating.

Ten days later beer bottles were passed through scalding hot water.  The brew was siphoned and filtered through a dense cheese cloth. That is not to say the liquid which was funneled into bottles was entirely clear for that was never the case.  Each waiting bottle received a measure of granulated white sugar to encourage carbonation then was mechanically capped and stored until Christmas Eve.  By then some of their cloudiness would have disappeared and a presence of bubbles on the sides of a glass showed minimal carbonation.  An overabundance of bubbles was deemed undesirable and fell below the standards of the discriminate afternoon home brew drinker. However, by midnight it was hardly noticed!

Contrasting with the distinct, pervasively bitter, odour of hops was the sweet, mouth-watering scents cast into the air by a combination of molasses, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and candied fruit each time the oven door was gently opened. Dark fruit cakes were perennial favourites.  Light fruit cakes, though equally delicious, rarely sparked the imagination or tempted the taste buds to the same tantalizing degree as the glistening dark ones.  Cherry pound cakes and loaves laden with chopped pecans, walnuts and hints of orange, competed for olfactory attention with partridge berry and blueberry pies.  As they cooled in the open air on the pantry counter the house took on a feeling, an intangible sensation that the world around us was changing, that despite all that might be wrong or despairing in our lives, it was time to take a deep breath. The air that came in through the door each time a visitor crossed the threshold brought with it promise and potential.  You could smell the freshness, the crispy newness of air intermingling with the comforting smells that already filled our noses and hearts.  Neither the ales nor the cakes were touched until Christmas was underway.

Tibbs Eve is widely understood on the south coast of Newfoundland to be the Eve of Christmas Eve. There is no Tibbs Day or St. Tibb thus it is the Eve of a day that will never come.  The next day is Christmas Eve which cannot be displaced or usurped.  Tibb’s Eve is the day to wind down community affairs, daily chores and orient oneself to the holidays. It is also the first evening that adults sit back, breathe deeply and take stock of what Christmas preparations remain to be done.  It was a ritual time to “break-the-ice’, to open the first beverage of the season and drink to house and home.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day stood distinct in their focus on the home with preparation of gifts, trimming the tree and of course a visit from jolly old Saint Nick and the ensuing feasting.  Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day opened the door to community; to friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances, and an occasional under-the-weather visitor, and of course, mummers!

We can reach into the depths of Newfoundland’s history and find references to their presence at Christmastime.  P.K. Devine in writing about Christmas in Newfoundland in the 1860’s, said: “An essential part of the Christmas celebrations was, no doubt, the “Mummers” or “Jannies.” They dressed up in all kinds of fancy costumes and visited the houses of the neighbors, where they were lavishly entertained. Both sexes, in later years, took part in these festivities.”  Reach farther back to some of the places from whence many of our earliest settlers came and you’ll find them there.  The Mummers Play found its way across the ocean from England and found a home in Newfoundland. Then there was William Shakespeare who gave us the comedic play, Twelfth Night, with its gender contortions of men and women.  We will come back to that later.

As dusk crept over the horizon on Boxing Day the approach of night hinted at merriment.  Costumes, prepared days in advance in some houses were donned while in houses of last minute mummers closets were raided seeking fabrics to cover and disguise their bodies and faces.  In some communities re-enactments of the Mummer’s Play with King George, the Turkish Knight and an ominous Hobby Horse made the rounds.  In others, couples bent on socializing set out into the night air. Family groups, neighbourhood groups, friends, young and old, ‘dressed up’.  Patterns of behaviours changed from place to place and over time. Where once it was common to host a dance in one’s home, hosting dances in the parish hall became the norm.

At the heart of disguising oneself as a mummer is the guessing game at each house as hosts attempt to determine the identities of their mysterious visitors.  The challenge when designing a costume largely from old, discarded or borrowed clothing was to confuse identity as much as possible and prolong the guessing.  Height, body shape, clothing style, gait, posture, voice and behaviours were all modified to that effect.  It was most common for men to dress as women and women to dress as men with results becoming more comedic as the night progressed and mummers imbibed in beverages provided by their hosts. Getting a mummer to take a drink would result in a possible glimpse of the neck or lower face as they tipped the glass to their lips. In other instances, women who didn’t usually drink couldn’t refuse for fear of ‘giving away’ their identity.

When such antics failed, body shape, behaviour and posture were explored.  Cushions, pillows, blankets, were all used to either enhance physical proportions or hide body shape.  This frequently engendered ribald commentary and speculation that would never have taken place under normal circumstances.  When mummers were present, many social mores were relaxed in the interest of good-natured fun. Gender bending offered comic relief and loosened taboos when hidden behind a mask or as it was sometimes called, a ‘false face’.  In order to throw their hosts off in their guessing adult couples frequently intermixed thereby prolonging the identity quest and extending the fun and hilarity.

Adult mummers usually ventured forth in the latter part of the evening after children had gone to bed.  If for some reason they weren’t in bed when the mummers knocked they were soon hustled up the stairs, tucked in and admonished not to peek downstairs. Now, if there was even an invitation to disobey, that was it! As the laughter and music swirled throughout the kitchen, so too did it swirl throughout the entire house.  It didn’t take long for stealthy feet to edge towards the stairwell or heat vents in the kitchen ceiling.  Any space which provided the minutest glimpse of the mummers was valuable territory. Mothers usually kept an ear attuned to noise from upstairs and periodically checked the stairwell.  Eventually, all would be ordered back to bed!

Homemade wines and beer flowed generously during such evenings.  In some houses it wasn’t unusual to find a bottle of spirits with its label mottled from aging in a nearby bog well out of sight of the customs officer or police. In others, a hollow sound in the floor betrayed a ‘liquor locker’.  On the south coast of Newfoundland close proximity to the French Islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon was celebrated by residents for generations.  For those who didn’t imbibe in alcohol, sweet drinks and cakes were readily available.

The twelve days leading to Old Christmas Day were primarily about socializing, relaxing, spending time with family and of course observing whatever religious events took place within the community.  Over those twelve days, in a small town like St. Jacques it was possible to visit the majority of residents either during the afternoon in one’s own garb or in the evening dressed as a mummer. It wouldn’t be fair to characterize the twelve days of Christmas as pure decadent revelry for there was still work to be done, animals to feed, wood and water to fetch  along with a multitude of household chores.  The community lived as it normally did but with a heightened awareness of each other to exercise what many believed to be the best of human behaviour.

Old Christmas Night, or the twelfth night, marked the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Epiphany in the Christian church calendar.  In some parts of Newfoundland the twelve days after Old Christmas day was considered the Old Christmas season and was characterized by visits to old friends and neighbours who were missed during the first twelve days.

Mummering changed and evolved over time. Mummers who paraded through the streets of the 1860’s gave way to a focus on house visits where dancing was the core activity.  Social visits by small groups were the norm I knew.  Today we are witnessing a return to the street parade mummers.  At its heart is still the gender-bending dressing up, partying, dancing and singing; and in many cases, ‘acting the fool’. Fool was a common name for ‘mummer’ during the mid-1800s in Newfoundland.

Earlier I mentioned Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  The play, written around 1601 references the twelfth night after Christmas, the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, an early Christian church holiday.  On that day servants dressed up as their masters, women dressed as men and vice versa. That inversion of social roles harkens back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia which also featured drinking, community revelry, and reversal of social orders where masters became slaves and slaves, masters compounded by males and females switching roles.   Twelfth Night is a play that preserves social disorder and merriment as celebration.  Four hundred years ago it celebrated Mummering.  Given that many of our ancestors came from the British Isles there is little wonder at its presence here.

Sir Toby Belch, in Twelfth Night, asks of a steward, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  Cakes and Ale were commonly associated with church related festivals as well as being a euphemism for having a good time. Again, an invocation of role reversal.  Shakespeare seems to have been poking a bit of fun at the double standards society frequently sees from political and religious leaders, suggesting with a ‘nod and a wink’ that things don’t change a lot regardless of ones position in society. Mummering had a way of levelling that social hierarchy at least for a few evenings in small communities in coastal Newfoundland.

During this 2020 Christmas Season with Covid-19 governing our lives, dictating who we can and cannot see, limiting our travel, and necessarily undermining our social practices we are compelled to think of Dickens and his ‘best of times, worst of times’ for we are learning to address a global challenge as human beings regardless of race, ethnic origin or belief system.  Like the Mummers and their antecedents social order is disrupted. Place in society matters little in the face of this threat.  And, like Sir Tobe Belch in Twelfth Night, there shall still be ‘cakes and ales’ but on a much smaller scale, hopefully in the safety of our own homes and social bubbles.

While Covid restrictions have temporarily taken away our big family gatherings, it has not taken away our memories or nostalgia. We can draw upon them to tell stories, make video and phone calls and reminisce. Perhaps one day we will look back nostalgically at the unusual Christmas of 2020.

Places to Explore

Devine, P.K., Christmas Fifty Years Ago: How the Festive Season Was Spent in the Outports in the 60’s, Christmas Record, 1916, p5.

The Mummers Song (Any Mummers Allowed In) (Simani)

Simani – Wikipedia

A Tale of Two Cities – Wikipedia

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Free Public Domain E-Book

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Free Public Domain E-Book

A Christmas Carol – Wikipedia

Learn About a Christmas Carol

Twelfth Night – Wikipedia

Twelfth Night Holiday – Wikipedia

Twelfth Night BBC Performance (1969)

Twelve Days of Christmas – Wikipedia


  1. What information and so will put together! Thank you Alex I just read this to my 90 year old momma,who is staying with me for the winter! It sure made her Sunday afternoon! Thanks again for a job will done!♥️Sylvia Caines Bullen.

  2. Thank you for this…..written so beautifully…bringing us back to our Christmas roots.John and Carol

  3. V. interesting to read, Alex.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: