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.
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.