Mummering (also called mumming, guising or janneying) is a disguised, Christmas-time, house-visit and guessing game. It describes the practice of visiting several homes throughout an evening while dressed as a stranger. Usually groups of friends or family will piece together 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. Posing as strangers, the mummers would typically knock on the door and ask to be let in.
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 , 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.