Today, it seems the images you see of mummers or janneyers are primarily positive ones.
Mummers are presented as jolly characters, bringing a sense of fun. They provide a nostalgic link to what might be seen as a happier time.
But this rosy image of mummering is perhaps only one way of looking at the tradition. The history of mummering has a darker and, at times, even supernatural element.
Newfoundland artist David Blackwood has created some of the most iconic images of the province’s mummering tradition. In 2003, Blackwood wrote an essay called “The Story of Mummering in Newfoundland” which was part of the art catalogue for a show entitled “The Mummer’s Veil” at the Abbozzo Gallery in Ontario.
In the essay, Blackwood describes his thoughts on what he called the “lone mummer.”
“Very rarely you would hear reports of a ‘lone mummer’ appearing in a remote community, as it was hard to imagine anyone undertaking such a visit alone in the dead of winter,” writes Blackwood. “In fact, this kind of sighting was a dreaded event, which stirred ancient and instinctive superstitions against outsiders, the archetype of the ‘stranger.’ A lone mummer was so unlikely and threatening that it was always referred to as a ‘spirit’ and was a certain sign of impending death in the New Year.”
Blackwood goes on to write that actual encounters with these sinister figures “did happen once or twice every 10 years.”
In 1979, Margaret Roberston completed her thesis for her MA degree at Memorial University’s Department of Folklore. In her thesis, titled “The Newfoundland Mummers’ Christmas House-Visit,” she examined archival records about mummering and janneying from 343 Newfoundland communities.
It is an impressive piece of research, and presents an interesting insight into mummering traditions in the province as they were documented, mostly from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.
Robertson studied the various costumes worn by mummers, and based on archival documents, argues that ghost and devil figures were two of the most frequent types of disguises.
“Mummers in white sheets with white pillow slip hoods or black stocking masks often portrayed ghosts, but ghosts were also represented by masquerades in other costumes,” Robertson writes.
“In Fogo, Fogo Island, N.D.B., someone dressed up in a dead man’s oilskins and visited the dead man’s widow. As the man had only been dead a week, the widow fainted.”
In Daniel’s Harbour, on the Northern Peninsula, another mummer disguised himself as a local supernatural figure, “Big Foot Sal.”
“Sal, in life, had been Sally Pollard, a tall woman with big feet who had walked into the woods one day to get birch rinds for tanning seal skins,” writes Robertson. “She never returned but her ghost is still seen in Daniel’s Harbour chasing the devil with an axe.”
Robertson goes on to relate that the wife of the man dressed as Big Foot Sal disguised herself in a cow’s head mask, an old sealskin jacket, and black pants with a tail.
Think of that: a big-footed ghost, wielding an axe, chasing the devil himself. How would that be for your mummering costume this Christmas?
Storyteller and author Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.