The first thing you notice is that all the faces in the crowd are obscured as they shamble on by in the oddest procession you’ll see in downtown St. John’s. Lampshades, dish clothes, bandanas, and lace doilies hide their identities. They’re bundled up in high waisted skirts, pajama bottoms, and long johns, and it’s impossible to make much of a guess what lies beneath the layers of clothing. The mummers are out on parade.
Now a staple of St. John’s revelry, the Mummers Festival started nine years ago as a joint initiative between the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial University’s Folklore Department. They’d gotten a grant to host a folklife festival, with the theme left up in the air.
For Ryan Davis, executive director of the festival, it’s sort of funny how the focus came to be mummers. “I think it was in the back of everyone’s mind that by the time I’d finished the thing, it would be right in the Christmas season. I think that was partly why mummering was chosen as the theme. So if I’d gotten this in January, we might have been doing something else,” he mused.
Davis was a Masters student in 2009, and started organizing the festival in September. It was pulled off by December. The festival was only meant to happen once, “But the response was really great the first year, and I think we all realized that we were on to something that could be really nice for the community, that people would want to go again.”
Letting the Mummers In
Mummers are creatures of improvisation, clothing themselves with whatever’s at hand. “And also quite often extensive inversion, so that underwear becomes outerwear. The typical Newfoundland idea of a mummer is a well-padded man with a bra on. Faces generally hidden with some kind of lace or curtain of some kind,” explained Dale Jarvis, Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer and author of Any Mummers ’Lowed In?
“You want to disguise not only your physical characteristics, but the way you move and possibly your voice as well.” Once dressed, mummers go from house to house in search of drink and food, playing a guessing game with their neighbours.
It’s hard to believe that it was illegal for over a hundred years and remained so until the early 1990s. Mummering’s past is entangled with drunkenness and violence that happened during the Christmas season.
“It was a time of year when the social order was a bit more fluid … People could act out in a way you wouldn’t normally. So if you held a grudge against someone for a year, at Christmastime, when maybe the alcohol was flowing a little bit and you were in disguise, and you happen to have a stick with you, someone might get a knock on the head,” Jarvis said.
During the 1850s and ‘60s, mummering became associated with violence, often along religious lines. It came to a head in 1860 when Isaac Mercer was murdered, which led to a ban on mummering.
Though it might have been illegal, mummering persisted, especially in smaller communities where police presence was more lax. The tradition did wane at times because of a variety of factors, like the changing makeup of communities. People might not know their neighbours well enough to let them in. One theory Jarvis and Davis both heard was when carpet was installed in homes, people didn’t want visitors traipsing indoors with their wet boots.
It experienced another revival in the 1980s with the Mummers Song, “And so by the time when the Mummers Festival started, I think people really wanted to kind of harken back to that kind of nostalgic idea of the past, and to celebrate that tradition, which had kind of outgrown that association with violence,” Jarvis said. Now mummering is seen as a quintessentially Newfoundland tradition.
The Mummers Festival has given people a sense of community and an urban context for experiencing mummering that might otherwise be hard to come by. It’s introduced the tradition to a younger generation and new Canadians.
The festival hosts various workshops and lectures, but one of the biggest draws is the Mummers Parade that loops through downtown. What differentiates it from other events like the Santa Clause Parade is that people don’t sit on the sidelines and admire those who go by.
“The parade only exists if people come and act in the parade. And that’s a little bit different from how events are usually organized,” Jarvis said. “We’re used to being kind of passive, recipients of culture in some ways. So to create an event that is participatory and active … I think it’s one of the reasons why the Mummers Parade has been so popular, because it’s democratic, anyone can show up with a tablecloth over their face and they can participate in the parade.”
Davis says they wanted people to have an embodied experience. “They might not get to play the guessing game, but they do get the experience of being in disguise and dressed as a mummer. And having some licence to act foolish.”
Check out the Mummer’s Parade this Saturday: https://www.mummersfestival.ca/mummers-parade. All photos: Elizabeth Whitten, circa 2015 Mummers Parade