Mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador
Mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador takes on many different forms: it continues as a Christmastime house visit; it has become a type of performance for summertime Come Home Year celebrations; it’s the topic of a still-popular song; and it’s represented in art and craft.Read More
Mummering has inspired artists, craftspeople, musicians, and business people to name a few. We now see mummer Christmas tree ornaments, dolls, embroidered pillows and quilts, wrapping paper, gift cards, paintings, photos, books, t-shirts, wine bags, coffee mugs, and Christmastime specialty beer. Mummering appears in local films, music, and television. It has been a continual area of interest for academics since the 1960’s and, in the 1970’s, provided the inspiration for an indigenous political theatre troupe.
Four different Facebook groups are dedicated to mummering here. Information about mummering can be found in the pages of school textbooks. Mummers-for-hire dance around banquet halls during conventions for visitors to the province. And now we’ve organized the first Mummers Festival—yet another variation on the tradition.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about mummering dying out. But traditions like these seem to ebb and flow. When Simani released “The Mummer’s Song,” we saw a surge of janneys, out tracking slush into kitchens. It might be more apt to say mummering has changed. After the release of Simani’s hit song, the phrase, “Any mummers ‘lowed in?” became an almost universal greeting for mummers across the province; whereas before, it was more common to hear greetings like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.” And it’s not unusual to see a mummer toting a boombox with the Simani CD on repeat. Mummers, who in the past, might walk between houses, are now known to cram into a car and drive to select homes—even to far-off communities.
Even perceptions of who a mummer is have shown signs of change. The mummers of previous generations were described as darker, more mischievous entities. The mummer as kidnapper was sometimes a threat used by parents to make sure their children were well behaved. Today the mummer often takes on a happy character. Christmas ornaments depict the mummer as jolly. Folklorist Diane Tye writes, “This is not mummer as stranger, or loner, or persecutor of children, but as a warm, hospitable and jovial community member.”
The articles in our “Traditions” segment of this website represent but a few of the different types of house-visiting traditions that have gone on in this province. They are meant to give a general overview and reflect common trends, but by no means do we wish to suggest that these are hard and fast rules. Traditions belong to the people who express them—who learn about them from others and who, in turn, give them a new shape, only to be passed along to someone else to make their own. Our hope is to demonstrate that mummering, janneying, going with the wren, etc., are multidimensional traditions as varied as the people who participate in them.
Mummering and Janneying
Mummering, mumming, or janneying in Newfoundland and Labrador describes the practice of visiting several homes throughout an evening while dressed in a disguise. Usually groups of friends or family will piece together their disguises using whatever they have around their homes. They might change their walk, talk, shape, or size—whatever it takes to make them unrecognizable to the hosts of the homes they visit.Read More
Upon entering a home, the hosts would try to guess the identities of the mummers who were hidden behind some kind of mask. They might get poked at and prodded, or asked a series of questions. When answering questions, mummers would often disguise their voice. The most well-known tactic involved speaking while inhaling.
Once a janney was identified, they would remove their mask. The hosts would then usually offer them drink and food. In many homes, a host would not offer a drink until they guessed the mummer’s identity. With the lifting of the veil, the stranger becomes the friend and the whole group would socialize until the mummers suited up and headed out to the next home.
This describes a typical mummers’ house visit, but of course, this tradition has many variations and has changed over time. In the 1960s, faculty at Memorial University distributed questionnaires about mummering to English and Folklore undergraduate students who, in turn, gave them to people they knew in their respective communities. The initiative generated over 1200 responses, amassing an extensive record of the province-wide custom. What became clear from the responses was the sheer variety of virtually every aspect of mummering throughout the first half of the 20th century.
In 1984, Margaret Roberston wrote a thesis called The Newfoundland Mummers’ Christmas House-Visit 2, based primarily on the responses to the questionnaire. What she came up with was an extensive summary of the research covering many aspects of the tradition such as mummers’ costumes, mummers’ behaviour, and the types of mummering groups. The following provides brief descriptions of some different elements of mummering based primarily on Robertson’s thesis and anecdotal evidence from present-day mummers.
Mummers have often portrayed themselves as strangers. When hosts ask their mummer guests where they’re from, they might respond with far-fetched locations. Robertson’s thesis lists some of the places mummers have claimed they came from: the North Pole, Liar’s Arm, Tar Bay, the moon, Hong Kong, across the ocean, Limbo, Moncton, Italy, or from the mustard factory (63). Some janneys would say they had been shipwrecked. Robertson writes, “mummers from Conche said they came either from the North Pole or Roddickton, the next community. As Conche was snowbound in the winter, Roddickton was just as improbable as the North Pole” (63).
At a time when people in rural communities seldom locked their doors, it was customary to walk into a home without knocking. However, the mummer who was supposedly a stranger would almost always knock at the door. Anthropologist Melvin Firestone suggests that, as strangers, mummers were not tied to the everyday social codes of conduct and thus, were given a certain freedom to behave differently — it allowed for behaviour that was noisy, boisterous, uninhibited, mischievous, sexual, and sometimes violent.
Today, the mummer as stranger appears to be more of a real threat than the playful one enacted by mummers of previous generations in communities where there would be no real strangers. In urban centers especially, many people will not open their doors to mummers or might not let them past the front porch. To get through the door, mummers might not take on the persona of stranger as intensely as before. Some mummers might phone ahead to announce their arrival. Visiting might be limited to larger, well-known house parties and less to every house in the cove. Plus with fewer groups out mummering, those who do go out are now more easily identified. Many homes expect the same group of mummers every year. And mummers who visit by car are also more easily identified unless they park away from the home (and some do).
WHAT MUMMERS WEAR
Mummers commonly make their costumes from whatever happens to be around. Robertson writes, “To disguise their identities, Newfoundland mummers say that they masqueraded in any ‘damn thing at all’, in whatever they could dig out of the old trunk in the attic or haul off the bed” (17).
Lace curtains from the bedroom or kitchen window would be secured with a hat. Pillowcases would be snipped to make eye, nose, and mouth holes, sometimes with hand-drawn faces. Cardboard and beer box masks were also made, sometimes with stitched-on cardboard noses, rope hair, or animal fur beards. Paper bags, store-bought Halloween masks, flour or sugar sacks, and stockings have all been used to hide the mummer’s face.
Mummers sometimes stuff their clothes with pillows or old clothes to disguise their body shape. It’s common to see a mummer with a humpback, a pregnant belly, or a giant behind—the lumpy mummer in long-johns is a classic look. The clothing is often large, loose and worn over winter clothing, adding to the largeness of mummers. In some cases, entire sheets might be tied around the waist, brought up over the head and shoulders, and stuffed to look very misshapen.
Cross-dressing is also a common theme. Men have worn dresses of all types and varieties including wedding dresses. Women have rigged up as fishermen in oilskins, hunters in red-checkered jackets, and mechanics in work-clothes—all stereotypical male characters. The stuffed size 42 bra is one of the most recognizable costume-pieces and many a man was worn one with zeal. But just as often, the misshapen mummer can seem to have no gender at all.
HOW MUMMERS TALK
“Janney talk” or “Mummer talk” refers to the abnormal ways in which mummers speak when trying to conceal their identities, according to Robertson (78). Speaking while inhaling is the most common form of janney talk, and was made popular by Simani’s “The Mummer’s Song.” Using a high, squeaky voice or a low, rough voice are also common tactics. According to some accounts from Roberston’s thesis, people sometimes put pieces of potato, buttons or marbles under their tongues to change their voice (80). There are other accounts of mummers speaking into pickle bottles or baking powder tins under their veils to alter their voice. Some mummers spoke like parrots, children, with varying accents, or were completely mute.
HOW MUMMERS ACT
The ways in which a mummer may act out is limitless. All we can really say is that they usually act quite differently than in day-to-day life. In keeping with the notion of disguise, mummers are known to change their walk and their height; it was common to see a mummer playing the old man or old woman, hunched over with a knotted-wood stick for a cane. Cross-dressing mummers will usually take on the stereotypical mannerisms of the opposite sex. Limping and hobbling was another way to disguise one’s walk.
When mummers were in the home, playing instruments and noise makers, dancing, and singing were the most common forms of entertainment. Occasionally, but less common, mummers might tell stories or jokes, offer recitations, perform dramas (i.e. mock wedding ceremonies), or play games.
Musical instruments might include voice, fiddles, accordions, mouth organs, spoons, baking-pan drums, tin whistles, washboards, or combs covered with tissue paper (Robertson 115). Some mummers carry around a boombox with music, the most popular song being Simani’s “The Mummer’s Song.” The music was loud and noisy more often than not.
Mummers are known to do a hard stomping step dance. Robertson writes, “janneys tended to caper and jump and swing people off their feet, rather than really dance.” (65) They often pulled hosts and their families into the thick of the dance. The dancing often took on a comical flair. Mummers might dance with brooms or mops as partners, and they might end up on the kitchen table. One mummer in Logy Bay described her dance as a spontaneous, high-energy aerobic-style performance, complete with high kicks, extreme stretching, and back bends. Males dressed as women might dance with other undisguised males, or a young male might dance with an elderly woman.
Mummers sometimes misbehave. Robertson writes, “janneys sometimes danced into other prohibited ‘inner parts’ of the house…the parlour, living room, and bedrooms” (66). There are accounts in Robertson’s thesis of mummers hiding their hosts’ hats and coats, stealing a Christmas cake from one house and leaving it in the next, and even milking a goat in the middle of a kitchen floor. Hosts, in return might pull pranks on the mummers, offering them cookies with salt, beet juice instead of syrup, or slipping matches into cigarettes.
While mummering takes on a variety of forms, it’s the social element that seems to underscore the house-visiting tradition over the years—a practice that highlights the bonds between hosts and guests, and between a group of mummers. For many of those who explain why they do it, mummering gives them the opportunity to take time out from their everyday lives and have fun with friends, family, and community members.
Fools and Ribbon Fools
From lace veils and pillow stuffed pants to proudly flaunted brassieres, if you’ve spent the holiday season in Newfoundland you know all about the wildly fun practice of mummering. What you may not have heard about before are peculiar characters known as “fools”. Over 150 years ago these sprightly entities had their own unique look and practices. With spectacular rigs covered in crêpe paper ribbons and distinct ship hats fastened on their heads, the fools hit the streets carrying inflated bladder sticks known as “swabs” to swing at any onlookers they happened to pass by.Read More
Mummering is often thought of as a house-to-house visiting tradition, but in the 1800’s mummers, often referred to as fools, had a large public presence. Little is known about the public marauding aspect of mummering throughout the 1800’s, but what we can discern from limited sources and the general social context of the time is that city officials and the upper echelons of St. John’s had a much greater tolerance for misbehaviour during the holiday season. In this time of folly people got away with behaviour that would otherwise be considered unacceptable.
During the twelve days of Christmas the fools meandered through the streets causing mayhem and disorder wherever they went. One of the earliest mentions of fools and their public behavior comes from an 1800’s account written by visiting Cambridge geologist, J.B. Jukes, who remembers:
The lower orders ceased work; and, during Christmas, they amused themselves by what seemed the relics of an old English custom, which, I believe, was imported from the West of England, where it still lingers. Men, dressed in all kinds of fantastic disguises, and some in women’s clothes, with gaudy colours and painted faces, and generally armed with a bladder full of pebbles tied to a kind of whip, paraded the streets, playing practical jokes on each other and on the passers by, performing rude dances, and soliciting money or grog. They called themselves Fools and Mummers.
Men often made models of two-masted, square rigged ships small enough to secure on the top of their hat. Multiple accounts describe their outfits consisting of white shirts and pants covered in assorted ribbons and tinsel. Crossdressing has always been a part of mummering and back then, young fishermen disguised themselves as ladies with dresses, makeup and all. These ‘lady’ mummers would sometimes accompany the fools while parading throughout the city and were known to be especially boisterous. It was common practice to keep one’s rig a secret until the Christmas festivities began when it would be worn out in public.
The only descriptions of fools in living memory come from the early- to mid-1900’s in the towns of Pouch Cove and Flatrock. During this time a distinction was made between mummers and fools; mummers were those who went door to door whereas the fools paraded outdoors and were a public holiday spectacle. Rather than going to homes, men dressed as fools took to the streets in groups sometimes as large as thirty five! Dressed in outfits festooned with ribbons and masks that disguised their identity, the fools spent most of their time chasing anyone who crossed their path. If you happened to be caught by one, you’d likely get roughed up a bit–a light whip of a rope or a rub in the snow was common practice.
There are a few slight differences between the fools of Pouch Cove and those of Flatrock. While these characters were referred to as ‘fools’ in Pouch Cove and only appeared on the afternoon of Old Christmas Day, their Flatrock counterparts were referred to as ‘ribbon fools’, and their appearance was expected throughout all twelve days of Christmas.
Quite similar to those of the 1800’s, typical Pouch Cove and Flatrock outfits consisted of a white shirt and pants covered in long strands of multi-coloured crêpe paper ribbons and holiday tinsel. With their ribbons blowing in the wind against a backdrop of bright white snow, these characters were quite the sight to see. In her interview with folklorist Dale Jarvis former Flatrock resident Margaret Maynard described the ribbon fools as “lovely when they were all dressed up…They used to glue on the ribbons about an inch or so wide. Oh, they looked lovely!”.
Despite its popularity during the 1800’s, in later years the use of the ship hat seemed to disappear altogether. Instead, both the fools and ribbon fools covered their heads and faces with what was known in Pouch Cove as the ‘fool’s face’. This ribbon-adorned hat and mask was characterized by its dramatic facial features, often made from wood stove ash and scraps of animal fur. As lifelong Pouch Cove resident Shirley Bragg recalls, the masks were meant to be ugly:
My father…He would make four or five different faces, masks as they would have, right? He just loved it… and he had to put it behind the stove, there was no electric stoves then, wood stoves. Put it behind the wood stove to dry it out. And [my sister] had to cross the stove to go out through, to go outside. She would not cross that stove. She was that much afraid of the face, it was that ugly. The face was actually ugly.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday season, the fools and ribbon fools would begin piecing together their outfits. Men in groups of two or three, usually of the same household, would sew ribbons all over their chosen shirts and pants, and afterwards continue on to make their ‘fool’s face’. It was of the utmost importance that costumes were kept a secret until they were worn out into town for the festivities. When the time came for the fools to finally be unleashed, friends would gather together and venture to a hidden location to get dressed in their rigs and prepare for the hoopla. Russell Langmead of Pouch Cove, who dressed as a fool with his brother Harry over fifty years ago recalls:
We’d have a car to pick us up, have our rigs out in the old woodshed and the car would come and we’d put the rigs in the car and we’d go on into Shoe Cove. Go on into the woods and hide away and put it on…You couldn’t put it on down at the house because they’d know exactly who you are! So then you had a rope about the size of a three quarter rope and splice an eye into it, put it over your hand on your wrist, and you’d be twirling it around like that and then get going.
With their ribbons dancing in the wind and ropes swinging they would set out to town where the foolery would begin. The families Pouch Cove would gather to watch in delight as the fools chased passersby and gave them a crack of their rope. Shirley Bragg remembers the young boys of the town hiding from the fools underneath the fish flakes as their masks were too tall to fit underneath.
Paralleling the 19th century use of inflated bladder swabs used to belabour onlookers, the fools of Pouch Cove playfully whipped anyone they could chase down with their eye-spliced rope. In Flatrock there is a bit of a discrepancy among residents as to whether the ribbon fools carried any sort of device used to hit or whip people. Mrs. Maynard made a clear distinction between the fools of Pouch Cove and the ribbon fools of Flatrock, stating that instead of carrying an eye spliced rope, the ribbon fools carried a stick called ‘the swab,’ similar to 19th century accounts. To match their festooned disguises, the ribbon fools decorated their swabs with different coloured ribbons.
Conversely, Flatrock resident Chris Kavanagh, didn’t have any memories of the ribbon fools carrying any sort of weapon with them. Instead of whipping with ropes or poking with swabs, they enjoyed playing pranks on people around town. During our interview with Chris, he told us the story of a friend becoming momentarily trapped by a gang of ribbon fools one evening many years ago:
…They were very, very active in playing tricks on people, and I remember them giving a roll in the snow and all that sort of thing, but never to hurt anybody, you know? And one time, we had a friend that used to visit us regular, Charlie Martin. And this particular night in Christmas [Charlie] came down…but he came a bit late. He said what a job he had to get out of the yard. He said just as he got in his pickup to come down here [and] the ribbon fools, four or five of ‘em I think he said, came in the yard. And he said they were waiting and going around and trying, trying to see if he would get out of the truck. And this is what they were gonna do, give him a rubbin’ in the snow, cause they knew he was scared to death right?
The fools of Pouch Cove and the ribbon fools of Flatrock were born out of the founding traditions of the 19th century and adapted in distinct ways to fit the spirit of the communities they served. While the tradition is no longer practiced in Newfoundland, it is our hope that these cherished memories of the Christmas fools will carry on and last for years to come.
The wren, the wren,
The king of all birds.
St. Stephen’s Day he was caught in the furze.
Although he was little,
His honour was great.
Rise up kind lady and give us a treat.
Up with the kettle,
And down with the pan.
Give us a penny to bury the wren.
A pocketful of money,
And a cellar full of cheer.
And we wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
—as recited by Dennis Flynn
The wren is just one of several Christmastime house-visiting traditions that continue here today. Typically, children and/or adults will visit homes within their community carrying around an effigy of a small bird—the wren. Upon entry into a home, they usually recite a poem about the wren and may offer some kind of performance, be it song, joke, or recitation. Often the host will offer up food, drink, or money for the visit. Unlike other house-visiting traditions, there are no disguises involved.Read More
The wren tradition is known to take place in Ireland and England where, in previous times, wrenboys would hunt a wren, kill it, and visit homes reciting a poem that asked for money to give the bird a proper burial. A feather from the wren might be offered to the patrons for good luck. Several weeks ago I caught up with Dennis Flynn of Colliers who has been involved with the wren since childhood. He explains,
“Growing up we used to participate in a tradition called the visitation of the wren. We never ever called it that. That’s a very official title. We always just referred to it as going around with the wren, or doing the wren…. It was a Christmas visitation. We always took part on December 26th which everyone nowadays calls Boxing Day. But we always called it St. Stephen’s Day…. Basically the idea would be that you’d go around on St. Stephen’s Day, as a group of boys. I did it from when I was about 10 years old until about 14….We weren’t doing it necessarily to preserve any cultural tradition. We were entrepreneurial. We were kids and this was the era of twenty-cent comic books…. So for us, it was this opportunity to go around and visit some people and entertain them a little bit, and make a few cents as kids.”
The wren stick, as Dennis calls it, describes an effigy of a wren, drawn on paper or carved from wood and attached to a stick. The wren sticks that Dennis made as a child would often take a beating in harsh winter weather and so a new one would be made every year. He described whittling a splinter of wood into a dowel and attaching a bird to the top, hand-drawn and cut from a Tetley tea box (photo courtesy Dennis Flynn). Another year, he recalled, his wren was cut from a piece of thick wallpaper.
Dennis said he learned about the wren from his father who, in turn, learned about the tradition from his father. Over the years in Colliers the tradition has taken on various forms. Dennis spoke about Colliers resident, John Ryan, who, along with other community members, incorporated into the tradition, their own version of a song by Tommy Makeham and Liam Clancey called “Children’s Medley” which includes several lines about the wren. Dennis recalled,
“There’s a line in there where they say, ‘Mrs. Clancey’s a very fine woman, a very fine woman, a very fine woman. Mrs. Clancey’s a very fine woman. She gave us a penny to bury the wren.’ But John and all those guys would come in, and if they went to Mrs. Murphy’s, well Mrs. Murphy would be the very fine woman, or Mrs. Whelan would be the very fine woman. So they customized it all the way along.”
Today, the tradition continues in Colliers amongst some of the youth. According to Dennis, it was a way to bring youth together with older people within the community. He said,
“It’s one thing for me or you to go, as adults. But to introduce the kids—the young people—to go, you have to have a little impetus for them. So to say, ‘Oh, let’s colour up a wren, and let’s go and tell this story, and she’ll give you a few candy.’ Perfect. So before you’ve realized it, you’ve indoctrinated them in the culture of visiting…. And that’s exactly what it is. You have literally introduced them into a rite of passage of visiting people—of having a respect and an appreciation of older folks and traditions without them realizing what’s happened…. You’ve made it fun for them.”
For Dennis, doing the wren during the Christmas season seems to reflect some of the community values he holds dear:
“Being a neighbour meant more than physical proximity…. It actually meant going and implicating yourself in their lives in a positive way. And that’s what the wren visitation sort of symbolizes to me, even today. It’s that ability to just take an interlude in Christmas…. It’s that excuse to knock on the door and do something pleasant and have that immediate recognition.”
January 6th is Nalujuk Night for Inuit communities throughout Labrador. This Old Christmas Day, end-of-season tradition is what Janelle Barbour of Nain describes as, “like ending it off with a big bang.” Towns are abuzz on this night, anticipating the arrival of the Nalujuit (plural for Nalujuk; also called Nalujuks)—particularly terrifying characters that are said to come in from the Eastern sea ice.Read More
The Nalujuk is typically dressed in animal furs, seal skin boots, and a mask that’s made from animal skin, cloth, or is store-bought. In a university class paper on the Nalujuk tradition, Jannelle Barbour writes from personal experience:
“Nalujuks are not real. They are like the boogey-men of other cultures. But, where this event takes place every year, everyone takes the Nalujuks to be a real thing. Most children and some adults are deathly afraid of them.”
The Nalujuit seem to run at breakneck speed as they chase children around the town. Stan Nochasak of Nain says, “Nallajuit usually wear seal skin boots which are really light, tough and make you feel like you can run really, really fast and they do.” If caught, children must sing a song to appease the Nalujuk, the most common song being “Surotsit Katitse.” Jannelle Barbour writes about the chase:
“Nalujuk’s night is truly a very exciting and scary time for all youth. The night starts off down to the community hall, where there are four or five people dressed as Nalujuks. These Nalujuks aren’t the ones that actually chase the children around town, trying to hit them. These Nalujuks are just there to show the younger children…what a Nalujuk is. After everyone leaves the hall, the real fun and games begin. Usually there are a lot of Nalajuks out running around, and there is always this one big and scary one, this one usually has the biggest weapon. It is really scary to get caught by this one. In Nain, there is always one spot where all the kids gather to stay safe. It’s usually on the steps of a person’s house. No one seems to mind though, seeing that this only happens once a year.”
In some instances, Nalujuit go into the household and bring gifts to the children; but there are a few conditions. Stan Nochasak talks about the ways in which Nalujuit question the childrens’ behaviour: “The Nalujuit will say, ‘PiujuKattaven?’ meaning, ‘Did you do good?’ and they say it with force: ‘PiujuKattaget!’ or ‘Do good!’” The children, who are often quite terrified, will have to sing a song for the Nalujuit before they leave the home.
For children who do not get house visits, they hang stockings on the eve of January 6th, to be filled by a Nalujuk. Gifts often include knitted gloves, headbands, socks, candies, or fruit.
As Janelle Barbour suggests, the fear invoked by the Nalajuk can be very useful for parents:
“Some parents use the Nalujuk as a discipline tool. They get their children to clean up their toys that they have gotten for Christmas, and if they don’t, the parents tell them that the Nalujuks will steal them for some other children.”
The night, Jannelle writes, is “more of a fun and games thing for the youth these days” with close to 100 people out running the roads, despite how cold it might be. No matter the terrifying nature of the Nalujuit, the tradition remains a cherished and exciting end to the holiday season.
A few years ago I asked my Girl Guide unit to bring in an object that had special meaning for their family. One girl brought a hobby horse that her uncle had used while mummering. It was a huge likeness of a horse’s head, made from a piece of heavy Styrofoam covered with black fake fur, complete with ping-pong eyeballs and a mouth that snapped open and shut on a hinge. The girl described how her uncle would prop the head on an axe handle and cover himself with a blanket to form the horse’s body. She furthered explained that her uncle was continuing a tradition handed down from his father, who had also had a hobby horse. The other girls in the unit looked on bewildered, unsure of how this object fit into the contemporary mummering tradition they were familiar with.Read More
During my early years as a folklore student I had written a paper about this family—the keepers of the hobby horse in my home community of Cape Broyle on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula. The hobby horse had been kept by this family for many decades and was a well-known part of the community’s mummering tradition. While the people I spoke with did not know the origins of the practice, they suggested that it was introduced to Cape Broyle from the neighbouring communities of Brigus South and Admiral’s Cove, and that it may have been related to the older custom of mummers carrying a replica of a bull’s head. At that time, mummers from Brigus South and Admiral’s Cove came to Cape Broyle during Christmas, and one man recalled,
“There’d be as high as fifteen, twenty people sometimes. And they had what we call the hobby-horse and they had the old bull, or imitations of them. And they’d be dressed in all different costumes and they’d go from house to house, have a drink, have a dance. And then they’d have one particular house in the settlement that they’d stay at to the end of their round-up. And there they’d have a party and after a while they’d get too warm and have a few drinks under their belts and they’d undress, to a certain extent anyway, and they’d stay there for the rest of the night.”
By the mid 1900s, a man in Cape Broyle was known as the keeper of the hobby horse. One of the mummers from the group that travelled with him described the hobby horse as having the
“shape of a horse’s head. It was held up by the person carrying it on a stick. It was covered with fur and hair, or a mane anyway. Had eyes and nostrils. And a piece of line protruded through the top of the head and attached to the lower part of the jaw, and by pulling on the string the mouth would open. And the same thing applied to the bull that the old people used to have. It had a head the shape of a bull, had horns and the same way they could manipulate the mouth by pulling a string.”
In Cape Broyle the hobby horse was never intended to be a violent figure. Even so, the hobby horse got up to its share of mischief. The hobby horse would often enter a house, look for the string which hung from the light in the ceiling and pull the string with its mouth to turn the lights off. When the hobby horse entered a house, small children would often hide from it, but a mummer recalled that
“The bigger ones, after a little while they’d get nerve enough to go over close to it and the old horse would keep snapping at them so that they wouldn’t get too close to find out really who was underneath the costume. Ah, it created a stir in a house. A lot of people were afraid of it.”
On one occasion, the keeper of the hobby horse loaned it to one of the other mummers in his group, who recalled,
“I got a loan of the hobby-horse and I was going up to a fellow’s one night. He hadn’t seen the hobby-horse before that and I was going to bring it into the house. Anyway, on the way up I was passing by the church and a fellow was standing up by the church. It was dark. There was no lights around at that time only the light over the church door. He was standing by the church door and when I passed by I started to go up to the church. And when I did, this fellow left and went into the church. And I was bold enough. I followed him into the church. And when I got inside he was going over the alter rails. So I decided I was gone far enough with it and I turned and I came back. But the next day I was speaking to the old fellow and he was after finding out who carried a horse and he said, `I have a heart condition and when I saw you coming I didn’t know who it was and I really didn’t know what it was. If you had come any further I would possibly have died’. He was quite concerned you know. And I thought it was only a joke. I didn’t realize that I frightened him that much.”
People in communities outside Cape Broyle were wary of the hobby horse and whenever the group went to another community they would often knock at the door, tell the person who answered that they had the hobby horse, that they were from Cape Broyle and that they would like permission to come in. Despite the polite introduction, households were still subject to the mischief of the hobby horse. On one occasion when the Cape Broyle mummers group went to the community of Tors Cove the hobby horse chased a hysterical women up the stairs where she hid under the bed. The other mummers had to come upstairs and bring the hobby horse back down.
The hobby horse hasn’t roamed the streets of Cape Broyle in a few years. Perhaps this Christmas I may finally get up the nerve and ask to borrow it—to see what trouble the group of mummers I go out with can get into.