Mummering, mumming, or janneying is a century’s old Christmas tradition brought to Newfoundland by Irish and English settlers. Its origins are in England during the Middle Ages, and while the custom waned during the 20th century, it has revived in recent years, due largely to the folk band Simani’s popular song of the same name, watch video below.
Back in the day, mummers 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.”
But on June 25, 1861, an “act to make further provisions for the prevention of nuisances” went into effect. The bill made it illegal to mummer or wear any type of disguise in public without the local magistrate’s permission. This was in response to the death of Bay Roberts resident Isaac Mercer who was murdered by masked mummers on December 28, 1860. Nevertheless, despite the bill, local residents would still mummer.
Mummers today deck themselves out in outrageous costumes, then in disguise, head door to door visiting friends, who try to guess their identity, all the while having a jig (dance), scoff (bite to eat), and swig (drink).
A key component to any mummering session is, of course, the ‘ugly stick’, a traditional Newfoundland 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. You play the instrument with a drumstick and it has a distinctive sound. Take a listen here.
Newfoundlanders sure know how to have fun so it is not difficult to understand why mummering remains a popular custom, not only on the island, but as far away as Fort McMurray, Alberta, where many a Newfoundlander work on the oil patch and miss home.
Each year the annual Mummers Festival also takes place during December in St. John’s. This two-week extravaganza is chock full of festivities which culminate in the Mummers Parade, where throngs of people in delightful, quirky costumes carry their ‘ugly sticks’ and parade through the colorful, narrow streets of ole St. John’s.
Below is a haunting etching and aquatint on wove paper depicting a mummer by acclaimed Newfoundland artist David Blackwood.
Mummering In Philly
Mummering is also a mega deal in Philadelphia which comes as no surprise given the city boasts the 2nd highest proportion of Irish-American residents among all major US cities at 13%, second only to Boston with 15.8%. The “City of Brotherly Love” pulls out all the stops, Rose Bowl style, to deliver their spectacular mummers parade each New Years Day. Philadelphia even has a mummers museum, now how cool is that?