A Brief History of Mummering…

The act of mummering actually comes from Rome, which is an awfully long way from Newfoundland and Labrador. The tradition was picked up in Great Britain, a tiny bit closer. It was adapted when some of the planters from Great Britain settled in Newfoundland, they brought the tradition of mummering with them.

At that time there were three types of mummering (or “jannying” or “mumming“). The oldest form was the parade. In St. John’s, Newfoundland‘s capital city, the Mummer’s Parade was a yearly event. This parade was not like our Santa Claus parades of today; it was very loud and rowdy, even to the point where people got hurt. In 1861, one hundred and fifty years ago, mummering was actually banned in Newfoundland because a man was killed by a group of mummers. Mummering, illegal?

Mummers also gave a performance visit. A group would go to someone’s house and put on a small play for him or her. The play always had a hero who was killed by a bad guy. Then a doctor would bring him back to life again. The actors in the play would ask for money before they left the house. This kind of visit stopped in Newfoundland and Labrador shortly before World War I; that’s more than 90 years ago.

The one kind of mummering activity that can still be found in Newfoundland and Labrador is the house visit. But years ago even this form of mummering was often violent and unpleasant. Mummers often carried “splits” or large sticks and fought with other groups of mummers or attacked innocent people. Horns, tails and skins from goats, sheep, caribou and seals were all used in costumes. They did a lot of damage to houses, wharves and fences. Many people were afraid of them.

Just under thirty years ago, in 1982, Bud Davidge and Sim Savoury released “The Mummer’s Song“. This silly song, written in true Newfoundland dialect, tells about a visit of the mummers who come in and dance. “Be careful the lamp and hold on to the stove. Don’t swing Granny hard ’cause you know that she’s old.” This catchy tune has probably caused more people to start mummering again. This time, however, most mummering is not violent, but fun. It is a really enjoyable way to visit your friends, and when they guess who you are, you invite them back to your house for a similar visit.

Sometime during the twelve days of Christmas, usually on the night of the “Old Twelfth”, People would disguise themselves with old articles of clothing and visit the homes of their friends and neighbors. They would even cover their faces with a hood, scarf, mask or pillowcase to keep their identity hidden. Men would sometimes dress as women and women as men. They would go from house to house. They usually carried their own musical instruments to play, singing and dancing in every house they visited. The host and hostess of these ‘parties’ would serve a small lunch of Christmas cake with a glass of syrup or blueberry or dogberry wine. All mummers usually drink a Christmas “grog” before they leave each house. (Grog-a drink of an alcoholic beverage such as rum or whiskey.) When mummers visit, everyone in the house starts playing a guessing game. They try to guess the identity of each mummer. As each one is identified they uncover their faces, but if their true identity is not guessed they do not have to unmask.

Although mummering has faded in large urban centers, with the exception of the re-introduction of the Mummer’s Parade held annually in St. Johns, the spirit of mummering continues in rural Newfoundland & Labrador. So when you’ve opened all your presents and you’ve eaten your turkey dinner, you probably feel that Christmas is over – here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the most easterly province in Can, the fun is just beginning, for the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 26 to January 6) is the time we’ll be mummering. You can watch for us, but you won’t know who we are!

There is still time to mummer, as tomorrow night is OLD CHRISTMAS NIGHT!

Live Rural NL – Christopher Mitchelmore

About Live Rural NL

I am a youth living in rural Newfoundland & Labrador that will share stories of culture, tradition, heritage, business, travel, geography and other posts relating to any rural. I completed a Bachelor of Commerce Hons. (Coop) degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador. I currently live and work on the Great Northern Peninsula, where I was born and raised. However, I have lived and worked internationally and travelled to more than 30 countries around the globe. On October 11, 2011 I was elected the youngest Member to Represent the people of the Straits -White Bay North in the Provincial Legislature of Newfoundland & Labrador.

Posted on January 6, 2011, in Tradition and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. can u tell me some more stuff about mummering

    • Hi Jasmine. Thank you for taking the time to read about my article on “A Brief History of Mummering”. I would be happy to answer some questions you may have, if I am able. Mummering is a tradition in the rural outport communities of Newfoundland & Labrador that is practised during any of the 12 days of Christmas. It still happens today, but the activity has been reduced since the early 1990’s and prior. I enjoy getting dressed up in all sorts of silly outfits, including hats, mits, sheets, pillow cases for masks. It is great fun! You get together with a group of people and go visit neighbours and the guessing game begins. It is all quite innocent and in the spirit of celebrating laughter and cheer. Typically the mummers will dance a jig, have a drink and maybe some sweet.

  2. I really liked this article. Thank you.

  3. this sucks

  4. scatter bit of mummerin and a drop a tea

  5. actually never mind… this is the most information filled article i read about mummering

  6. i really liked it it helped me with my project…….thanks

  7. Helped with my project, Awesome job!

  8. i likezit all da wayy bob thanks man…

  9. thanks it helped me with my english project

  10. Everything is very open with a very clear description of the
    issues. It was definitely informative. Your website is very helpful.

    Many thanks for sharing!

  11. Hello Christopher,

    I know this is an old post, but if you read this I’d love it if you could get back to me.

    I’m a university student in Ottawa who is doing a research thesis on mumming. As you probably know, there has been quite a bit written on the house-visit in Newfoundland, but most of it was written before 1990. I’m not able to go to Newfoundland to conduct original research, so my thesis is based on past writings by other anthropologists. As such I have not been able to figure out a central question–do people still engage in mumming house-visits? I know an elderly man originally from Wood’s Island near Corner Brook who says that people still go mumming in the smaller communities, but I have not been able to verify this. Most of what I’ve read suggests that it doesn’t really happen anymore, except in formal settings like festivals and parades (but most of what I’ve read was written some time ago, and not by actual Newfoundlanders). If you could give me any information on what mumming looks like today in Newfoundland (apart from the mummers’ parades, which I’m aware of) I would deeply appreciate it. It seems that nobody has written much about it since about 1989. I will check back in a few days and am really hopeful that you could respond! Thanks so much!

    • Thank you for your interest. People still mummer door to door in community today during the Christmas season. If you search mummer in the search box of this blog you will find a lot of information. Dale Jarvis also wrote a book “Any Mummers ‘lowed In”, It is quite detailed. I did a Folklore Paper on Mummering in 2005

  12. Thanks Chris. I did find your other posts on mumming after making the initial comment. I also located Professor Jarvis’ book and may get my university library to track down a copy for me. Thanks!

  13. Great article though! 🙂

  14. heps with my project for school thank you!!!!

  15. thank you its helping me with my project! just one question, you said there was three types of mummering, what was the other types called? I would like to know them a little and a little about the types so I can include it to the project!

  16. Very lovely

  17. Loves the mummers bye

  18. This informative article was very nicely written. Do you know of any websites that are publicly accessible that a person could access in order to find out when and where a group of people would be participating as Mummers?

  19. thanks i got 100 in my project

  20. The Song Was Very Awkward But The Rest Was Fine My Report Got Me An A Though!

  21. Great article and quite informative. Thank you. For more google
    Christmas+Mummering+Newfoundland

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