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Dressing Up Mummers or Jannies
By Sharon Chubbs-Ransom
Call it whatever you will, it is a tradition that has been around a long time! Because of our English and Newfoundland heritage the Mummering tradition at Christmas came with the people who immigrated to the Quebec Lower North Shore. It was brought from England to Newfoundland has a tradition of Christmas festivities when they came to the New World. Some great figure in English literature once wrote, “I have honored Christmas in my heart and will try to keep it all year….” We aren’t sure who wrote it but usually give credit to Charles Dickens, whose writings, name and very personality we now associate in someway with Christmas.
Mummering is “the dressing up in disguise or costume” during Christmas. Mummers started on St. Stephen’s Day other wise known as Boxing Day or December 26th and carried on throughout the 12 days of Christmas to “Old Christmas” night. In by gone days it was entertainment that everyone looked forward to. For children it could be a little scary. Though even young children looked forward to the day when they would be considered old enough to “dress up mummers” too.
Mummering is also referred to as “Jannying” by some “old timers”. In La Tabatiere it was called “dressing up mummers” and “getting a rig”. “Dressing up” and “rig” just meant finding a suitable costume. Rigs went from the elaborate to the simple. Some people stuffed themselves into bullet proof long johns with lots of bumps and lumps, pulled stockings up their legs, used odd gloves, mitts, socks and odd strange looking hats and scarves. Men put on their wives dresses over many other layers. Grotesque animal heads and faces that might scare even an adult let alone a child. Sometimes a bed sheet would be tacked around a “Carnation milk case”. The person then drew a face on the milk case with eye holes on the outside world. He stepped inside, closed the opening by holding it together and his lack of form, muscles, and curves, disguised who he or she was. You were only limited by your imagination. Some people were more creative then others. The idea was to conceal your identity. Many of the homemade “mask” or facial covers were flour bags, sugar sacks, brin bags or cardboard boxes with eyeholes cut appropriately. There were lots of Robin Hood flour bags used; today it would be seen as good advertising.
Then there was the “hobby horse”. This contraption had the homemade head of a horse made from a junk of firewood. It had a hinged jaw, with nail teeth, that could be moved. Attached around would be a sail or some material cover that up to three people might be under. With hobbyhorses some people were known to park their hobbyhorse over a cellar hatch where they knew the owner of the house might keep his rum keg!
When mummers arrived at a house they knocked on the door with a split (piece of kindling). This too was unusual because in a community where everyone knew each other no one knocked. When the door was opened the mummers asked in a loud voice “if mummers were llowed”. The mummer’s voice or talk was achieved by sucking the air to the back of the throat or voice box, holding your breath, and then in a loud nasal throaty cry or talk, speaking, “Good night etc”. Some people were very good at this while others preferred to use gestures and signs or remain mute. When you were allowed inside there was a place to sit or crouch and then the fun for the whole household was trying to guess whom each mummer was. Only when your name was guessed correctly were you committed to remove “take up” your mask. Then the sack or cloth covering the face would be flipped back over the head. If you were using the milk case rig, you piled the sheet or blanket into the case and stuck it underneath your arm until you got to the next house. Sometimes the mummers had music, an accordion or a harmonica “mouth organ” skill or musical talent had little to do with it. Sometimes singing or recitation of “old songs or poems” were sung or read. These songs or recitations were mostly of local composition and content or had been specifically composed for the occasion.
At each house after the mummers were “guessed” and “unmasked” there usually was a treat, homemade candy, Christmas cake or cookies, a drink of some kind etc. Sometimes with adults the drinks got strong and at the end of an evening of mummering some people were not in good shape and probably in worst shape the next day! All part of the fun!
For the most part this tradition and custom was fun and entertainment. But, like everything sometimes it got out of hand and old grudges and nasty things were resurrected during mummering. In fact in Newfoundland there was a time when it was against the law to “Mummer Up”. The 1892 Consolidated Statutes of Newfoundland, p281 read. “Any person who shall be found at any Season of the year, in any town or settlement in this colony without a license from a Magistrate, dressed as a mummer, masked or otherwise disguised, shall be deemed guilty of a Public Nuisance”!
Years ago Aunt Clara Wellman and Aunt Laura Griffin loved to “Mummer Up” and had great fun doing it! In more recent years Betty Rowsell kept the tradition alive. Today people like Georgina Ransom, “Mummer Up” every year; they refuse to let the tradition die out. Lots of times the fun is in the personality of the person who gets “Mummered Up”!
Mummering began to die out on the Coast when people began putting in carpets. People didn’t want Mummers tramping in with wet snowy boots over their good carpets. One time the kitchen was the center of entertainment and that is always where mummers went. A bit of water on the floor could be wiped up after without ill effect. The next day the question was, “did you go all around” or “how far did you get?” It was a time when young and old looked forward to this entertainment and fun.
By the way this takes place on the mainland of Canada although our English Newfoundland ancestors brought the tradition.
Picture 1: click here / cliquez ici
Picture 2: click here / cliquez ici
the Web: 13 March 2005
Thank you to the previous coordinators,
Sharon Ransom and Marc-André Gosselin, for their excellent work !
We are looking forward to reading your suggestions and comments. / Il nous fera plaisir de lire vos suggestions et commentaires.
Dernière mise à jour: 13/10/2016
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