Traditions

Traditions

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.

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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.

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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.

THE STRANGER

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.

Ribbon Fools

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.

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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.

The Wren

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.

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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.”

Nalujuit

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.

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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.

Hobby Horse

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.

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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.