Mummering or Janning: What Is It? A Historical Look

Here is a description of Mummering as described by J. B. Jukes from 1842:

“This was the season of general holiday. The lower orders ceased work; and, during Christmas, they amused themselves by what seemed the relics of an old English custom, which, I believe, was imported from the West of England, where it still lingers. Men dressed in all kinds of fantastic disguises, and some in women’s clothes, with gaudy colours and painted faces, and generally armed with a bladder full of pebbles tied to a kind of whip, paraded the streets, playing practical jokes on each other and on the passers by, performing rude dances, and soliciting money or grog. They called themselves Fools and Mummers.”

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Background of Mumering

Christmas is here and in all the outports the traditional spirit of the festive season takes off! Mummers tramp every village lane and bypath and beat on nearly every door. It’s exciting, and without these disguised tramps it would be a dead.

Christmas in the Outports. 
Everyone looks forward to these nights with harsh raps on the back door and everyone standing ready to extend a jovial welcome to the comic figures, draped in fluttering clothes and veiled in funny masks.

Strangest of Tones
Inside they seat themselves around the kitchen and converse in the strangest of tones. Now find out who is who.  Everybody sizes them up. Some are examined, and allow it, whereas others resent it. There’s a lot of prodding, fun making, and conversation.

And requests.
Naturally they ask for Christmas cake and something strong to drink with it. Everybody expects this sweet request to be forthcoming and generally everybody is prepared to pass around the plate and the glasses too.

Dance on the Back Porch
And then the dance. Uncle John takes the kerosene lamp and leads the group to the back porch where they beat it out to the sagging rhythm of the floor beams. There is always somebody around with a mouth organ or an accordion. When there’s no instrument at hand you can always fall back on Aunt Mary. She knows the familiar ditties, and her vocal chords are as good as they ever were. Her dadada-da’s soon tire the mummers out and they stroll out through the door, into the night and trudge off to someone’s else’s house to go through the same exercise.

This Mummering custom is an old one. 
It dates back to the middle ages and was customary in England up to the time the colonists came to North America at the beginning of the seventeenth century. With them they brought their present-day customs but they have changed somewhat with the centuries. 

The original mummering was a play that was acted in the kitchen. It dates back to the middle ages. The play was very short and its cast consisted of three chief characters and two or three minor ones. 

Father Christmas.
The leader of the group was Father Christmas who introduced the play. The other characters staged a hand-to-hand fight. There was Saint George, the patron saint of England, and a Turkish Knight or some other stalwart figure. In the combat Saint George emerged the hero whereas his opponent, badly defeated, lay fatally wounded. But he soon recovered through the black magic performances of a witch doctor.  It was during this resurrection scene that the comic element entered the play and drew forth a torrent of uproarious laughter from the spectators. The play then ended and the group trudged off to another house to re-enact the same scene. This old custom was practised in Newfoundland by the early inhabitants but it faded with the years, taking on local colour and hilarity, until our present manner of Mummering lost all shreds of its original play-acting.  Odd and comical as the custom is, it adds zest and colour to Christmas in the Newfoundland outports.

History of Mummering

Mummering” is a very old Newfoundland custom that dates back to the time of the earliest settlers who came from England and Ireland.

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 neighbours. 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, sing and dance in every house they visited. The host and hostess of these ‘mummers 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. (A grog is 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.

For a time the old tradition of “Mummering”, or “Jannying” as it is sometimes called, seemed to fade, especially in the larger centers of Newfoundland. In recent years, thanks to the popular musical duo, Simini, who wrote and recorded “The Mummer’s Song” in 1982, Mummering has been revived. It is just as prevalent and popular as it was years ago and young and old look forward to dressing up this Christmas, knocking on a friend’s door and calling out “ANY MUMMERS ALLOWED IN?”

J. H., Spaniard’s Bay, Newfoundland

Types of Mummering

One night just after Christmas I watched in awe while my mother dressed to go out. She looked pretty normal when she started: blue jeans and a white sweatshirt. Then she put on Dad’s long woollen socks – inside out! Next came Granddad’s big orange rubber jacket and his bibbed oilskin pants. She took two pillows from her bed and pushed them down inside the big green pants. An old pillow slip, which had two holes cut out for eyes, went over her head. A blue wool scarf tied around her neck would keep her mask in place. She finished the costume with some funny red gloves and a pair of Dad’s steel toe workboots.

“It’s important to be completely covered,” she explained.
“You look like you’re dressed for Halloween,” I said.
“Nope!” she replied in a voice that was definitely not my mother’s. “I’m going Mummering!”

She showed me how to disguise my voice by sucking in my breath while talking. It was really neat. She said that a group of them would knock on a neighbour’s door and call out in those strange voices. “Any Mummers allowed in?” they would ask.

Once inside the house, she said, they would act really silly. They would dance and put on a little show and the people who lived in the house would try to guess who the Mummers really were. It’s like a guessing game. She said they take off their masks when their names are guessed, and then they have a snack – usually Christmas cake, cookies and Purity syrup (a Newfoundland-made sweet drink). Sometimes the adults were offered an alcoholic drink. It sure sounded like a lot of fun. I couldn’t wait until she let me get dressed up to go Mummering too.

I found out later that Mummering wasn’t always such a fun, clean game. The act of Mummering actually comes from Rome, which is an awfully long way from Newfoundland. The tradition was picked up in Great Britain, a tiny bit closer. And then when some of these people settled in Newfoundland, they brought the tradition of Mummering with them.

At that time there were three types of Mummering (or “Janneying” 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, over one hundred and thirty years ago, Mummering was actually banned in Newfoundland because a man was killed by a group of mummers.

Mummers also gave a performance visit. A group would go to someone’s house and put on a small play for them. 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 shortly before World War I; that’s eighty years ago.

The one kind of Mummering activity that can still be found in Newfoundland 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. Some even wore the dried head of a bull or cow as a mask. They did a lot of damage to houses, wharves and fences. Many people were afraid of them.

As recently as 1973, 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.

Mummering is the chance for adults to act like kids again. They get all dressed up so that no one knows them and do crazy things. They tell lies, they steal – cakes, brooms, vegetables, even chickens! They play with water and make a nasty mess on the kitchen floor with their muddy boots. They fight and dance and sing silly songs. They come crashing down to real life, though, when someone guesses who they are and they have to take off their masks. While the fun is not over, now they have to behave like adults again.

So when you’ve opened all your presents and you’ve eaten your turkey dinner, you probably feel that Christmas is over. But in Newfoundland, the fun is just starting, 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!