As the Twelve Days of Christmas roll around each year in Newfoundland and Labrador, you might see oddly padded figures with humps on their backs, shoes on the wrong feet, their auntie’s bra on the outside of their clothes, with faces hidden behind masks or bits of old lace. These characters trudge from door to door or make surprise appearances at parties, seniors’ homes, or workplaces. Once inside, they dance and sing and have a drink or two while people try to guess just who is behind all that clothing. Then, before they roast from the heat of the kitchen, they head back out into the darkness and do it all over again.
These strange creatures are mummers, though they can go by other names: jannies, fools, oonchicks, or darbies. Whatever you call them, and however they are costumed, they are a firm part of the province’s Christmas folklore. But while today’s mummers are often portrayed as friendly and entertaining, they have a past checkered with violence, vandalism, and even murder. By the 1860s, mummering had been made illegal, a ban which stayed in place for well over a century, but which failed to stamp out a beloved, and complicated, Christmas tradition.
Folklorist Dale Jarvis traces the history of the custom in Newfoundland and Labrador and charts the mummer’s path through periods of decline and revival. Using archival records, historic photographs, oral histories, and personal interviews with those who have kept the tradition alive, he tells the story of the jannies themselves. Along the way, he will introduce you to other colourful Yuletide characters, including ugly stick–makers, the wild-eyed, snapping-jawed hobby horse, the St. Stephen’s Day wren boys, the actors of the old mummers plays, and the fearsome nalujuit of Northern Labrador.
Welcome to the colourful world of Christmas in Newfoundland and Labrador, a holiday that is not complete without a little bit of mischief and foolishness!
About the author
Dale Jarvis works as the Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, helping communities to safeguard traditional culture, the only full-time provincially funded folklorist position in Canada. Dale holds a B.Sc. in anthropology/archaeology from Trent University, and a M.A. in folklore from Memorial University. He is a past president of the Newfoundland Historic Trust, and has contributed as a board member and volunteer to many local arts and heritage organizations. He regularly teaches workshops on oral history, cultural documentation, folklore project management, and public folklore programming. By night, Dale is the proprietor of the St. John’s Haunted Hike ghost tour and raconteur of local tales. As a storyteller, he performs ghost stories, stories of the fairies and little people, tales of phantom ships and superstitions, and legends and traditional tales from Newfoundland, Labrador, and beyond. His repertoire includes long-form folk and fairy tales from the island, with a wide-ranging knowledge of local legends, tall tales, and myths. A newspaper columnist and author of several books on Newfoundland and Labrador ghost stories and folklore, he is a tireless promoter of local culture. A mummering enthusiast and hobby horse–maker, Dale was one of the founding members of the 2009 Mummers Festival in St. John’s.
A must-read!This book is an excellent reference to introduce you to the world of mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador. This is a must read for any Newfoundlander and history buff. It is well worth the time spent just reading it and taking it all in.
Other titles by Dale Jarvis
More True Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador
Place Names of Newfoundland and Labrador
Place Names of Newfoundland and Labrador
On This Day
365 Tales of History, Mystery, and More
Ghost Stories from the Rock
Any Mummers ’Lowed In?
Christmas Mummering Traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador
The Golden Leg
And Other Ghostly Campfire Tales
Ghosts, Fairies, and Fabulous Beasties
True Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador
Canadian Ghost Stories