Any Mummers ‘lowed In?
I was walking down the street on a beautiful December afternoon in St. John’s, Newfoundland and who passes me, but someone in red long johns and Sorel boots with a big hobby horse head obscuring his own, accompanied by someone else with a lace doily covering their face. Weird, right? Most bizarre masked stick-up?
Not at all! I was headed to the Mummers Parade and these folks were just running a bit late for the festivities. They’d soon be enveloped in a sea of similar masked figures flowing through the colourful streets of the Georgetown neighbourhood.
So…”what the hell’s a mummer?” you’re asking. Forget what you might have seen in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, we’re talking about Newfoundland mummers here.
Mummering is a centuries old Christmas visiting tradition that’s become unique to this island. It may have its roots in Europe, but it’s pure Newfoundland now. Between Christmas and New Year, you disguise yourself and go door to door, entreating your neighbours to guess who who are. If they guess correctly, you reveal yourself.
This isn’t Halloween though and your mummer’s costume doesn’t have to make any sense. Actually, it’s best if it doesn’t. Men in dresses, bras on the outside, pyjamas, doilies on head, rubber boots on the wrong feet, socks for mitts…it’s a fashion free-for-all. The only goal is to disguise yourself.
Of course, this disguise also includes your voice, so mummers will grunt and wheeze and have developed the art of inhaled speech – short phrases spoken while simultaneously drawing quick breath. The most frequent is that which follows the knock on the door, “Any mummers ‘lowed in?”
The best mummer groups bring their own instruments and revel in getting their hosts up for a dance. Doesn’t matter how small your kitchen is, there’s always room for a scuff. A good host, will offer up their Christmas drink stash to the troupe and a good mummer will accept without hesitation.
Ask you can imagine, mummering has changed in recent decades. In fact, it was actually a banned activity for many, many years, though rural communities mostly ignored the law. In small, isolated towns your neighbours were as familiar as your family so you didn’t worry about letting a group of mummers in because, chances were, you knew them very well. But there was just too much opportunity for a few troublemakers to take advantage of the masked nature of the tradition, so government tried to end it.
With more people living in larger communities now and less isolation comes a lack of familiarity among neighbours. And, let’s face it, would you really let someone dressed like this….
…into your house if you weren’t expecting them? We still get mummers showing up at my dad’s house in New Brunswick at Christmas, but we expect them and know that they’re a group of our fellow Newfoundland friends. We have Simani’s Mummers Song on standby on YouTube. That’s the only way it can be done nowadays.
Until the Mummers Festival began in 2009, that is. 300 people showed up on a drizzly Sunday afternoon to march in a the first parade of its kind. The mummers parade allows us to embrace the unique weirdness of the mummering tradition without fear of being arrested by terrified householders. Every year more people are helping to revive what was once a dying tradition. Hundreds take part, either in the parade or as an observer.
It all starts with a “rig-up” in a local school gym, where folks dig through piles of donated clothes and scraps to put together their mummer costume. Real and make-shift instruments alike are dotted throughout the crowd. Someone might start up an accordion jig prompting mummers to link arms and dance with anyone in sight. Drums beat out a marching rhythm and it’s time for the parade to begin. Afterwards, there’ll be cookies, hot chocolate and Purity syrup in the parking lot behind the school and the dance will continue until you can’t feel your fingers from the cold and you’ve made at least three new friends.
Mummering tends to make strangers of friends and friends of strangers and it’s the most delightfully bizarre thing you’ll witness this Christmas. The only things you need to participate are energy and a willingness to let your inhibitions down and have fun.