Hold on to your pillow-stuffed arse: It's mummering season

While many Canadians associate mummering with Canada's East Coast, the tradition also has roots in Philadelphia — and a connection to Gritty.

A Day 6 guide to the weird and wonderful tradition of mummering

People gather dressed in costume during the annual Mummers Parade in downtown St. John's, N.L., on Dec. 19, 2015. Mummering is a traditional Newfoundland Christmas tradition. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
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Most Canadians probably know mummering as a tradition unique, in this country, to Newfoundland and Labrador, and also parts of Nova Scotia. But at least one city south of the border has a similarly odd and somewhat frightening custom.

Philadelphia's history of mummering came to Day 6's attention when we did a story about the equally frightening Gritty.

Mummering also popped up in November after the long-forgotten Nova Scotia tradition of "belsnickeling" appeared in a travel magazine — and left locals dumbfounded.

So, as the holiday season approaches, we thought we'd take the opportunity to answer some of your burning questions about the unique tradition — both in Canada and beyond.

What exactly is mummering?

We're glad you asked.

Mummering is a tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador where, over the 12 days of Christmas, you visit the homes of your friends and neighbours, and they try to guess who you are. It's kind of like a house crawl with costumes involved.

"Typically, you move on to another house and another house in another house," said Ryan Davis, the head of the St. John's Mummers Parade.

"That would entail a full night of mummering."

Often, mummers partake in libations.

People gather dressed in costume during the annual Mummers Parade in downtown St. John's, N.L., on Dec. 19, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

What does one wear on a night of mummering?

Just about anything you can find.

"It's typically a patchwork of random clothing or objects that you would find around the house," Davis said.

First off, you should change the shape of your body.

Lamp shades and curtains are common attire on a night of mummering. Your face, obviously, must be covered.

Undergarments — bras and knickers — worn over clothing is fairly typical, and cross-dressing is also common.

Here, a mummer wears a sheer curtain or table cloth beneath a shower cap with cat-eye sunglasses. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

And what about these mummers in Philadelphia?

The major difference is that they come out on New Year's Eve.

Back in the day, they would roam the streets on Dec. 31, and, much like their Atlantic counterparts, visit friends.

But, they'd also shoot guns in the air as clocks struck midnight, causing a ruckus.

Residents tried to put an end to it in 1900 when the city offered the mummers their own New Year's Day parade.

Much like their counterparts on the ocean, the tradition originates from Europe — Ireland and Germany in particular.

A reveller wearing fancy dress participates in the annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia on January 1, 2017. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Do Philly mummers do anything else differently?

A bit.

The parade has five categories of mummer: The Fancies, who dress up, often like animals, and walk the parade. The Comics, who are more traditional in their outfits.

They're followed by the Wench Brigade — a group of men dressed as women carrying parasols, and they're tailed by the String Bands.

"Bright costumes. A lot of sequins, a lot of feathers," said Leo Dignam who runs Philadelphia's parade. "They play instruments and they do performances — almost like a Broadway show type of four and a half minute production."

Then there's the Fancy Brigade — a blend of the fancies and the string bands.

The Quaker City String Band performs 'The Perfect Swarm' led by Captain Jim Good during the 116th annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016. (Ed Hille/Philadelphia Inquirer/Associated Press)

Drunk people in masks — has anything gone wrong?

Yep.

In Philadelphia, "there was a lot of carousing and drinking involved, and there were a lot of fights and there were some people that were hurt and killed," Dignam said.

North of the border, mummering was banned in the 1860s in Newfoundland.

"This was due to a mummer murder of a man named Isaac Mercer. He was struck in the head by a hatchet by a group of mummers," said Davis.

Yikes.

An article in Porter Airline's in-fight magazine about a Halifax Christmas tradition called belsnickeling created a bit of confusion on Twitter. Namely, because few people had heard of it. (Emily Williams/Twitter)

Wait. Is belsnickeling real too?

Absolutely, and our colleagues at CBC Radio's As It Happenshave a photo to prove it.

Belsnickeling originated in Germany and, in a similar fashion to mummering, disguised revellers visited their friends' houses to play a game of guess who.

Child belsnickelers, meanwhile, might have expected small gifts or snacks.

Why it fell out of favour in the province, though, is anyone's guess.

So, here's to a festive, and well-disguised 2018 mummering season on both sides of the border.


To hear more about mummering, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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