If you see a crowd of strangers walking past your house next weekend, faces covered and carrying sticks, don’t be scared — get out your long johns and your great-auntie’s size 42 bra and go join them.
Dec. 18 will see the second annual Mummers Festival end with a parade through the centre of St. John’s and a Christmas concert at The Rooms, complete with Purity syrup.
The festival began last year as a collaborative research-based initiative of the Intangible Cultural Heritage division of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial University’s Department of Folklore. This year, a group of volunteers are organizing the festival, lead by co-ordinator Ryan Davis.
“People say mummering is dying, but it’s not dying, it’s changing,” Davis told The Telegram. “It’s still very much a part of our identity, and the fact that there are all kinds of mugs, T-shirts and other things with mummers on them indicates that. Our goal is to give people a more personal experience, something they can’t get from an ornament.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, mummering or janneying describes the practice of going door-to-door, dressed in a disguise, usually during Christmas week. Mummers would be invited into homes, and the hosts would attempt to guess their identities by asking them questions or poking and prodding them. Once they were identified, their masks were removed and they’d have a drink, a bite to eat and a dance, before suiting up and heading off to the next house.
Perhaps most popular during the 1960s, the tradition seemed to die out a bit and was actually banned after instances of violence occurred. The ban was lifted during the 1980s, Davis said.
The tradition saw a resurgence once the now-famous “Mummer’s Song” was released by musical duo Simani in 1984.
“That really revitalized the tradition,” Davis said of the song. “Mummering sort of ebbs and flows — it might drop off, but then people pick it up and it becomes useful again. I think we’re sort of in that surge again.”
Many people see mummering as a uniquely Newfoundland tradition, but it’s actually practiced, in different forms, all around the world.
“There are all kinds of masked traditions in the Caribbean and Latin America, and all through Europe as well, with different variants,” Davis explained. “It’s been practiced for centuries and continues to go on today.”
Different workshops and events have been happening since the festival began earlier this week, and will continue right up until the parade. A lecture about mummering traditions will take place at The Rooms Wednesday from 7-8 p.m., while a talk about mummers and masks will happen between 2:30-3:30 p.m. the next day.
Three hobby horse-making workshops, the last of which will take place at the Victoria Park poolhouse this Sunday between 1-5 p.m., have proven particularly popular.
“The hobby horse is not a very well-known tradition with the mummering, but I think doing these workshops, we’ve sort of created a new buzz about it,” Davis said. “Basically, we’re turning lifeless pieces of cardboard into giant puppets, essentially, with snapping jaws. We’ve had quite a huge turnout for those events, way more than last year.”
Davis hopes the workshop participants will bring their hobby horses to the parade, which begins with a “rig-up” at MacPherson Elementary School at 1 p.m. Anyone wanting to take part in the parade can attend the rig-up, either bringing their own costumes, or piecing them together from bins of clothing. At 2 p.m., after everyone is sufficiently disguised and armed with hobby horses, ugly sticks and other musical instruments, the parade will start, going from the school, down Calver Street, Calver Avenue, Rankin Street, McNeil Street, Howley Avenue Extension and Merrymeeting Road before ending up at The Rooms at 3 p.m.
That’s when the Mummers’ Jam and Concert will happen.
“We’ve got a nice crowd of mummers from the Logy Bay/Outer Cove/Middle Cove area, and they do a bit of a Christmas concert, and there’ll be some dancing and food and Purity syrup. We hope to open the mike, so if there are people who bring instruments, they can jam. We’re trying to keep it as informal as possible,” Davis said.
“No matter where you are, whether you’re experienced or not, come down. You can learn from the other mummers who are there. The more diverse the crowd, the more spontaneous and interesting it will be.”
A collection of non-perishable food items for the Community Food Sharing Association (an initiative of the Georgestown Neighbourhood Association) will be taken at the concert, for those who want to contribute.
Davis said the goal of the Mummers Festival — which will continue next year this time — isn’t to promote the festival, but rather to invigorate the mummering tradition in this province.
“I think the festival is the venue to actually motivate people to try and take the tradition and reinvent it for themselves,” he said. “And it’s just a lot of fun.”
More information on the Mummers Festival, including a full calendar of events, is available online at www.mummersfestival.ca.