The tenth annual Mummer’s Festival is underway in St. John’s, offering a multitude of diverse mummering related events from November 24 to December 13.
Leading up to the main event, the Mummers Parade, the festival offers paint nights, workshops on building hobby horses, ugly sticks, box and bucket masks, short film screenings, and educational lectures on the colourful history of the festival’s namesake colourful characters.
The dark, cold night of November 28 perfectly matched some of the topics to be discussed in the evening’s presentation, titled “Frightening Fools: Exploring Mummering's Dark Side.”
The Rooms’ theatre was warm and inviting, like the Mummers Festival coordinator Ryan Davis, who began the evening with a presentation on “a pretty creepy tradition,” the hobby horse.
“A peculiar breed” and a “rare sight,” the hobby horse has nails for teeth, a hinged jaw helping to create a menacing “snocking” jaw. A unique disguise, the hodge-podge hobby horse was known to be extra mischevious, with early accounts telling spooky tales of people being bitten and chased by the strange creature.
Davis recounted a court record from 1862, in which a Harbour Grace man claimed to be attacked by a hobby horse, before moving on to discuss a 1967 province-wide survey on Christmas traditions, which amassed mummering and hobby horse stories from nearly 350 communities.
Hobby horse pastimes ranged from playful and innocent, to devious and mischevious, on through to intimidating and violent, like their mummer/janney counterparts.
Having spent over ten years studying the mummering, Dr. Joy Fraser is an expert on the topic.
Fraser earned a Ph.D. in folklore at Memorial University, and has been researching the connections between mummering, violence, and the law in 19th century Newfoundland.
Using court records, press coverage, legal proceedings and more, Fraser has been piecing together the details of a nearly 160-year-old murder, perpetrated by six mummers in Bay Roberts.
Six men were indicted for the offense, but none were convicted, due to insufficient evidence.
This was the most serious of the many violent mummering-related events of late 19th century, which would eventually lead to the issuing of mummering “licenses” in 1861, followed by an all-out ban in 1862. The ban would remain in place for over a century.
Throughout her very informative, interesting and shocking presentation, Fraser recalled historical details and amusing anecdotes related to the annual practice.
The custom has not always been as cute as Simani’s “The Mummer’s Song” music video would lead you to believe.
At its best, mummering strengthened community bonds, while simultaneously providing citizens with a temporary escape from their own reality. At worst, mummering was “traditional violence,” or “culturally sanctioned deviousness,” inspiring terror, tears, and sometimes, bloodshed.
With a vast and deep scope of knowledge, Fraser’s presentation could have easily continued for another hour – it seemed as though she only skimmed the surface of this intriguing, entertaining, and jaw-dropping cultural phenomenon.
Mummering will be celebrated in full regalia around the winding city streets of St. John’s on December 8.
After learning about the dark side of mummering, I’ll be ignoring the noise out by the porch door, and I won’t be allowing any mummers in, nevermind twenty or more.