How would you react if at some point during the evening a knock came to your door and there stood five or six figures dressed in outrageous and exaggerated clothes, faces covered, instruments in hand looking to come into your house? No, KISS did not just show up on your doorstep but an equally entertaining and talented group we call janneys or mummers are hoping to gain entry into your home.
What’s a mummer you ask? For those who don’t know, it is a person who dresses in costume in such a way as to conceal their identity. The costume may consist of any old piece of clothing laying around your house. It could be coveralls, dresses, bath robes, long underwear – anything goes! Men often dress as women and women as men. A face covering consisting of a lace veil or mask is most often used and is a necessity. Ski masks are acceptable as well. Then the mummer gets together with other mummers and they go from house to house in the community during the Christmas season, usually starting after Christmas Day. They knock at the doors of friends and neighbors who would invite them in for a drink, maybe some fruit cake and a tune or quick dance around the kitchen floor. Then they leave and proceed to the next house. This is the act of mummering. The mummers can chose to reveal their identities if they wish to do so, but it’s likely that they will not. AND, it’s probably a case of majority rules when it comes deciding whether or not to lift the veil. It’s all of them or none of them!
It’s a pretty safe bet that this day in age not too many people would welcome such a group of unknowns into their dwelling. With the way things are these days mummers would need to call ahead and schedule a time that best suits all parties involved. Today, if they showed up unannounced all the homeowner would have to do is look at their “doorbell cam” app on their smart phones and decide if they wish to pause Netflix and get up out of their overstuffed couches and answer the door…or not! Things have gone modern I s’pose.
Growing up around the bay, Riverhead Hr. Grace to be precise, we mostly referred to the visitors as janneys, rarely did we call them mummers. As a young child I remember both the excitement and fear of the janneys. It was fun to watch family members dress up in their most outrageous outfits and fanciest lace veils. Sometimes the face coverings would be rubber masks and that’s where the fear factor creeped in for me. It was fun watching them critique each others outfits and see if they were giving away any tell-tale signs of their identities. I never participated in any of the festivities myself. By the time I was old enough to do so, janneying was pretty much a thing of the past. I recall one year, though, going to a Mummer’s Dance at the Knight’s of Columbus in Hr. Grace. It was hilarious listening to people’s guesses as to who was behind the disguise. You could be as foolish and uninhibited as you wanted to be because no one had any clue as to who you were. Factoid: That night I won first place in the mummer’s contest and the prize was six free beer tickets!
There has been a revival of mummering over the past few years with the Mummers Festival in St. John’s kicking off in early December with various events and workshops taking place over a two week period culminating in a Mummers Parade. We had the opportunity to attend the parade last Sunday at Bowring Park and it did not disappoint! Here are some of the sights from that day.
Only in Newfoundland & Labrador where young & old, big & small, short & tall can gather together in their wildest get-ups and parade around and no one even bats an eyelash. It was such a fun experience and so great to see a lot of younger people participating in the event, keeping the customs and traditions alive. Even though the act of going from house to house has generally faded away, it’s nice to know that the heart and spirit of the mummers are alive and well.
Below are a few interesting links pertaining to mummering, including an interesting tale of a time when mummering was outlawed in Newfoundland! I also included a link to the beloved Simani Christmas special on YouTube that features the Mummer’s Song. No Christmas is complete without watching it.
So, if you hear a knock at your door some time during the Christmas season it might just be the mummers coming to plank ‘er down.
Have a safe and happy Christmas everyone.
Until Next Time!