Mummering or Janneying is a century’s old Christmas tradition brought to Newfoundland & Labrador by Irish and English settlers. Its origins can be found in England during the middle ages. The custom waned in Newfoundland during the 20th century but has revived in recent years due largely to the folk band Simani’ popular song of the same name.
Mummers deck themselves out in outrageous costumes, then disguised they head door to door visiting friends who have to guess their identity (but not before they get a jig, scoff [bite to eat] and a swig in of course).
A key component to any Newfoundland and Labrador mummering session is, of course, the “ugly stick”, a traditional musical instrument fashioned out of household and tool shed items, typically a mop handle with bottle caps, tin cans, small bells and other noise makers. The instrument is played with a drumstick and has a distinctive sound.
Back in the day, they were a lively bunch according to Pat Byrne, an expert in Newfoundland folklore from Memorial University:
“Where I came from, up in Placentia Bay – if you didn’t let the mummers in, somebody might take a big pile of sheep s–t and throw it down their chimney.”
On June 25, 1861 an “Act to make further provisions for the prevention of Nuisances” was passed. The bill essentially made it illegal to mummer, to wear any type of disguise for that matter in public without the local magistrate’s permission. This was in response to the death of Bay Roberts resident Issac Mercer who was murdered by masked mummers on December 28, 1860. Despite the bill, local residents continued to mummer.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are well known for having fun so it is not difficult to understand why this remains a popular custom not only celebrated on the island but as far away as Fort McMurray, Alberta where many a Newfoundlander and Labradorian can be found working on the oil patch and missing home.
Each year the annual Mummers Festival takes place in December at St. John’s. This two-week extravaganza is jam-packed with festivities that culminates in the Mummers Parade. Here throngs of people in delightful, quirky costumes can be found carrying their “ugly sticks” parading through the colorful narrow streets of ole St. John’s.
Below is a haunting etching and aquatint on wove paper depiction of a mummer by acclaimed Newfoundland artist David Blackwood. Hear what he has to say about the tradition of mummering (audio).
Mummering In Philly
What was interesting to learn as a Newfoundlander is that mummering is also a mega deal in Philadelphia. But then again maybe this should come as no surprise. Phili boasts the 2nd highest proportion of Irish-American residents among all major US cities (13%, 2nd only to Boston at 15.8%).