by Dale Jarvis
The old Christmas custom of mummering seems to be seeing something of a revival. This past Christmas season, it was hard to turn on a radio station or visit a shop without hearing the strains of “The Mummer’s Song.” Looking around, one could see mummers on stage, mummers on t-shirts, and mummers on cards and posters. What you didn’t see were ribbon fools.
Ribbon fools are one of those old bits of Newfoundland folklore that has been largely forgotten. But fifty years ago in the community Flatrock, ribbon fools were an important part of the holiday season. Two weeks before Christmas, I paid a visit to Mrs. Margaret Maynard at her home in Flatrock. After I was made comfortable on a daybed by the wood stove, with a cup of tea and purring cat, she shared memories of ribbon fools and Christmases years ago.
The ribbon fools were a variety of mummers, who wore white costumes festooned with multi-coloured ribbons. Unlike other mummers, they kept their faces bare, so everyone knew who they were, and only travelled around the community during the holidays, until Twelfth Night on January 6. “Oh my, they were lovely when they were all dressed up,” reminisces Mrs. Maynard. “They used to glue on the ribbons about an inch or so wide. Oh, they looked lovely!”
The would-be ribbon fools would make a run into town to purchase the ribbon for the Christmas holidays. “They would get the roll of ribbon and slice it off,” explains Mrs. Maynard. “They really looked good, all different colours. The ribbons were cheap then, not like now.”
“They had a stick they would carry,” she adds, which was called “the swab.” As they travelled along, the ribbon fools would use the swab to poke people they met. “They’d give them a poke with it,” says Mrs. Maynard. “They had a little thing on the stick, to give you a poke with. They had the stick dressed up with different coloured ribbons.”
The Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines a swab as “a stick, similar to the mop used on fishing boats, with various objects attached to one end, carried as a mock sceptre by mummers during Christmas revels.”
“The men would dress up with garments made from flour sacks,” reads the Town of Flatrock website. “The shirts were covered with necklaces, broaches, and coloured ribbons. The men would go throughout the community borrowing all the necklaces they could find. They would sew these on their shirts. They also wore big caps made in the shapes of boats with sails on them.”
The custom of the sailboat caps may be part of a Newfoundland Christmas tradition dating back to the nineteenth century. Sir Richard Bonnycastle, writing about St. John’s mummers in 1843, described both the practice of hitting spectators with a swab, and huge cocked hats made of paper. “Much ingenuity is observable in the style of the cocked hats,” he wrote, “which are surmounted with all sorts of things, feathers in profusion, paper models of ships, etc.”
Gradually, the old practice of the ribbon fools died out in Flatrock. Over time, the sort of mummering known to current generations of Newfoundlanders became more common. Unlike the ribbon fools, they went around in the evenings, and covered their faces. While in other parts of Newfoundland they were known as mummers or janneys, in Flatrock they were once known as “oonchicks” or “ownshooks.”
“Oonchicks,” says Mrs Maynard, “that’s not like the ribbon fools, that’s different. They used to dress up and go around, and they called them oonchicks. Every one would be different. They used to come into our house, down Power’s Lane. The house is still there.”
“They don’t go around like that today,” says Mrs. Maynard. “There might be a couple go around, but not like then. But it was really good years ago, a better Christmas than now.” As I left the warmth of Mrs. Maynard’s kitchen, her newly-cut Christmas tree was leaned up outside. Some traditions, like the ribbon fools, may have vanished. Others, it seems, are here to stay.