Mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador describes the Christmastime practice of visiting several homes throughout an evening while dressed in a disguise. Groups of oddly dressed friends 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. Once the hosts guess who the mummers are, they take off their masks and stay for a party or social. Then the mummers go to another house...and another house....and another.
For over 300 years, local merrymaking has flourished. Now mummering is considered one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most unique and colourful traditions. The mummer is a symbol of the Province’s fun-loving spirit and is tied deeply to a sense of who we are.
Today, mummering and mummers take 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. 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 information 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.