Newfoundland Mummer Story

Newfoundland has a ton of fun and interesting traditions but few are as celebrated as mummering. 

Mummering, or janneying (depending on the Bay you call home), is a Christmas tradition that has people dress-up in bizarre costumes and travel house-to-house in the days after Christmas.  It’s about dancing, celebrating and having fun.  The way it works is a group of mummers knock on the door and ask, using a disguised voice, to be let in. Once inside they don’t speak. It’s  the homeowners job to try to provide refreshments and guess who the mummer's are.

Mummering is entertainment but not always a lot of fun. For some people, especially children, it can be a little scary.  Remember, the whole game involves mysterious strangely-dressed adults acting weird. That said, at least historically speaking, it was relatively harmless — the Newfoundland mummering tradition thrived in small, isolated communities so, while people may not have known a mummer’s specific identity when they invited them in, they could be sure it was a neighbour or family member under the disguise.

The popularity of mummering has ebbed and flowed.  At some points in history it was illegal. At other points it was just unfashionable.  In fact, even the popularity of carpeting in rural homes has been implicated in the decline of the activity.  It's been said that as people put harder-to-clean carpet in their homes they were less likely to invite mummers, with their dirty snow-coved boots, inside.

In the early 1980s Newfoundland folk band Simani wrote a song called The Mummer's Song (Any Mummers 'Llowed In?).  It told the story of a night with the mummers.  It became wildly popular and was supported by an episode of the CBC series Land and Sea which included a dramatization of the song.  Together these pop culture depictions of mummers had a strong hand in shaping current perception of the tradition.

Today you’ll have no trouble finding a mummer in Newfoundland - or at least an image of one.  My local Walmart sells all manner of mummer merchandise from ornaments to oven mitts.  But it’s not all commercial — Newfoundlanders are mummering again, too.  They dress up and visit family and friends and there is even a popular mummer parade in St. John’s each year.

While I have never gone mummering, I do remember a visit from mummers when I was a little kid.  Like many kids, I found it scary!  I’ve never forgotten it and, in fact, it sort of inspired me.  I took my memories of mummers, combined them with lots of mummering lore I've heard through the years and a healthy dose of Clement Clark Moore and wrote the following mummering story called Twas the Night After Christmas.  It tells the story of a grandmother who is *usually* very good at guessing the identity of mummers.

I've shared this story before and its been published in a local magazine.  The text is below, but if you'd rather have me read to you in my genuine Newfoundland accent, you can watch the video above.

Merry Christmas,

'Twas The Night After Christmas

‘Twas the night after Christmas, when all through the cove
Not a creature was stirring, except Gram by the stove.

Her wood was all stowed, her lamp burning bright
In hopes that the mummers would be there that night.
The children were gathered, too excited for beds,
While strangers danced jigs, all through their heads.

Mother wore a smile, I’d a tune in my heart
When all of a sudden, we were given a start.
Out by the porch there arose such a din,
And a queer little voice, “Any mummers ‘llowed in?

Mother’s arms open’d wide, each child flew in a flash.
The old door burst open, hit the wall with a crash
The moon on the drifts of new fallen snow,
Left the mummers in shadow, their backs to the glow.

All this was too much, my eye left to wonder,
‘Til Gram exclaimed, “O, by d’ Lord thunder.”
Her miniature frame, her mind sharp and quick,
She ran for the door, fast as a trick.

Rolling like capelin, the mummers they came.
They whistled! They shouted! But she called them by name.
“Now, Billy! Now, Samuel! I knows that it’s you
“And David! And Michael! I sees you there too.

“With drawers on yer head! And pillows strapped on!
“I’ll name everyone of you, ‘fore y’er all gone!”
As dogberries drop, ‘neath a wild autumn gale,
The mummers, they fell, with each name she would nail.

Her method? Her madness? No one could say.
No means of disguise would lead her astray.
And then, in a twinkling, there stood but one.
I couldn’t be certain if ‘twas daughter or son.

I put my hand to my head, the children looked ‘round,
When in through the door The Mummer stepped with a bound.
He was dress’d all in rags, from his head to his feet.
His mitts on wrong hands, his face veiled with a sheet.

An old burlap sack was thrown on his back,
The Mummer looked for a chair, and he opened his pack.
Gram stood a-puzzling, her eyes all a-riddle
When out from the bag there came an old fiddle.

His mitts set aside, he drew up his bow
And played us a reel, how the mummers did go!
The old kitchen shook, they danced round the room.
One mummer grabbed Gram, another jigged with the broom.

Who was this stranger? She’d no chance to tell
The kitchen of chorus gave her no time to dwell.
The Mummer made merry, ‘twas time for a dance
Hand-to-hand went old Gram, with hardly a glance.

The Mummer looked at me, then the bottle on the shelf
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
That wink of his eye, that twist of his head
Soon gave me to know, I had nothing to dread.

She stood -- but in silence -- and started to bristle:
He sprung to his feet, to the team gave a whistle.
A Stranger walked out, and down the porch stair
He spoke not a word, but went about work

I filled his glass, he’d down with a jerk.
But dancers grow tired, and nights come to close
Gram saw The Mummer and they squared off like foes
“You’re the first” called out Gram, “But I’ll get you next year!”


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