Mummering or Janneying is a century’s old Christmas tradition brought to Newfoundland & Labrador by Irish and English settlers. Its origins are in England during the middle ages. While the custom waned in Newfoundland during the 20th century, it has revived in recent years. Due largely to the folk band Simani’ popular song of the same name.
Moreover, mummers deck themselves out in outrageous costumes, then in disguise, 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).
Also, 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. You play the instrument with a drumstick and it 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.”
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, to wear any type of disguise in public without the local magistrate’s permission.
Consequently, it was in response to the death of Bay Roberts resident Issac Mercer. He was murdered by masked mummers on December 28, 1860. Nevertheless, despite the bill, local residents would still mummer.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know how to have fun. Likewise it is not difficult to see why this remains a popular custom. Not only on the island but also as far away as Fort McMurray, Alberta. Here many a Newfoundlander and Labradorian work on the oil patch and miss home.
Each year the annual Mummers Festival takes place in December at St. John’s. This two-week extravaganza is full of festivities that culminates in the Mummers Parade. Here throngs of people in delightful, quirky costumes carry their “ugly sticks”. Then they parade 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. Also 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. At 13%, they are second only to Boston with 15.8%.
Furthermore, the “City of Brotherly Love” pulls out all the stops Rose Bowl style to deliver their spectacular mummers parade each New Years Day. Also, they have a mummers museum, now how cool is that.