Celebrating one of Newfoundland's 'strangest (and slightly terrifying)' holiday traditions
Every December, locals are invited to dress up and parade through the streets in disguise
This weekend marks the 9th annual Mummers Parade, part of a festival that celebrates one of Newfoundland's strangest (and slightly terrifying) holiday traditions. If you've ever daydreamed about dressing up with mitts on your feet or a tea cozy on your head and going door-to-door scoring free drinks from your neighbours, mummering is the holiday tradition for you!
Mummering is the act of dressing up in full disguise and visiting house-to-house for a mug-up and a kitchen party, particularly in Newfoundland's rural communities. Mummers are invited in for food and drink, and after reeling around the house, occupants must guess the mummers' identities. Mummering actually originated several hundreds of years ago in England, but it's remained a mainstay in Newfoundland all these centuries later.
The tradition takes a different approach in St. John's, though, with the Mummers Festival. Every December, locals are invited to dress up and parade through the streets in full mummer garb. The weeks leading up to the parade are jam-packed with a series of events and classes, including hobby horse workshops (a creepy handmade horse with sharp teeth and a snapping jaw), and ugly stick workshops (a Newfoundland musical instrument made from a wooden broom handle nailed with bottle caps and other odds and ends). Both are used as props throughout the parade.
The whole thing started out nine years ago with a few Memorial University of Newfoundland folklore students being handed a grant to kickstart a folk festival. The theme they chose was mummering.
"We chose mummering because we wanted to create a new representation of the tradition for the public," says Ryan Davis, the festival's executive director. Davis never grew up participating in traditional mummering, but he had a keen interest in public display events and cultural rituals.
The festival and parade allows participants to connect with others in a unique way — not as strangers, but as friends. "It allows people to dress up and step outside their everyday roles," Davis says.
That initial festival was such a success, it's now become an annual thing.
A mummer's disguise is serious business, and no look is too outlandish. You may see mummers wearing oversized bras outside their clothes, or tea towels over their faces with eye holes cut out of them. Some wear beer boxes over their heads or stuff their shirts to look rounder. A mummer will do anything to disguise themselves, including walking and talking differently. You only have to look as far as Simani's classic "The Mummer's Song" music video (dated from 1986) to get some idea of what mummering is all about.
The parade is the grand finale. The event kicks off with a Rig-Up (the province's largest dress-up party), and then a march through the streets of St. John's. At the end, the mummers congregate for a scuff and a scoff at Bishop Abraham Elementary with live music, cookies and cakes, as well as other surprises.
One of the best things about the parade is that it's very much a participatory event — most people are engaged and involved rather than just standing on the sidelines.
"It's more fun on the inside," says Davis. Plenty of non-Newfoundlanders get involved too, including new Canadians and new residents to the province. Davis says some people even fly in from other parts of the world just for the event. "It's a great way for new people to get a taste of regional culture."
While mummering in the traditional sense isn't so common even in Newfoundland's rural communities these days, mummers themselves have become legendary Christmas icons throughout the province. Gift shops are stocked with mummer paraphernalia, including holiday cards, posters and prints, tea towels, and Christmas ornaments.
And if you want an opportunity to dress up in full mummer regalia and assume an entirely different role for just one day, "stuff your arse" (as the festival's website says) and join the parade, where you'll be welcomed with open arms and plenty of Purity cookies.
Find out more about The Mummers Festival here.