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!