ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – An oversized bra worn over a plaid shirt with a flowing skirt, a face-shielding lace doily, a floppy hat and an ugly stick.
That’s a fairly standard costume for the wild and wonderful Yuletide tradition called mummering — just one of many ways Christmas turns into a full-on festival of concerts, kitchen parties and theatre on the Rock.
In the seaside capital city of St. John’s, the annual mummers parade is a colourful tribute to the playful custom of dress-up and visiting that’s still popular in some outports around the island.
An ugly stick, in case you haven’t made it this far East, is a home-made percussion instrument. It’s often a broom or mop handle with dozens of beer caps, small bells and other noisemakers attached, a tin can on top and, sometimes, a boot on the bottom for stability as it’s played with a drumstick.
Mummering is a blend of traditions believed to have migrated to Newfoundland from England and Ireland early in the 19th century.
Also known as mumming or janneying, it generally works like this: groups of relatives or friends decked out in costumes knock on the door of a neighbour’s house.
They ask something such as, “Mummers allowed in?” And, if welcomed, the hosts try to guess their visitors’ identities before serving drinks and food.
Gender-bending dress and talking while inhaling are some of the tricks used to throw off the guessers. Mummers have also been known to dance a jig or play a tune as part of the game.
It’s a tradition that fascinates people from outside the province, said Dale Jarvis, a folklorist at the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The foundation revitalized the mummers parade three years ago and has since watched it take on a life of its own.
“The first year we ran the parade, we had a fellow who flew in from Nova Scotia,” Jarvis said. “He had read about it online and wanted to experience it for himself.”
Ryan Davis is leading this year’s event, set for Dec. 17. He expects it to be even bigger than the last parade which drew about 350 mummers.
“I’m anticipating a really big increase this year,” he said, based on inquiries and interest.
Mummering is a great leveller that, for a short time, frees people from the constraints of age, income and gender while they’re in disguise, Davis said.
“It’s just a lot of fun.”
Gaylynne Lambert, a marketing and events co-ordinator with Downtown St. John’s, has never spent Christmas away from the city.
“I couldn’t,” she said. “Christmas is the one time of year that we all make a point to get together in one group,” the youngest of six kids said of her brothers, sisters, nine nieces and nephews.
“There’s tons of stuff going on,” she added, rhyming off a heady list of holiday concerts featuring popular traditional, rock and folk musicians.
A classical favourite is the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s yearly rendition of Handel’s “Messiah” at the soaring St. John’s Basilica. Concerts are scheduled for Dec. 16 and 17.
“It’s an absolute world-class performance,” Lambert said.
And then there’s the charm of downtown St. John’s itself, its bright clapboard buildings nestled around a pretty harbour that’s crowned by a Christmas star atop Signal Hill.
“It’s a great time to come to the city,” Lambert said. “We’re friendly anyway, but everybody smiles a little bigger. Everybody’s a little softer, nicer, kinder. It’s a very welcoming place to be for somebody who perhaps has to be away from home for Christmas or is by themselves.”
The season wouldn’t be complete for many people without a Spirit of Newfoundland dinner and show. The theatre is based in the city’s former Masonic Lodge, a Victorian-era architectural wonder that overlooks much of the downtown.
“O Holy Night,” performed by Shelley Neville, is a particular highlight of the Christmas season, said Kathie Hicks, chief executive officer of the theatre and catering company.
Throughout the month of December and well into January, Newfoundlanders will celebrate as family and friends return from other provinces, she said.
“We’re still singing “Jingle Bells” until January 6th or 7th. It’s a bit odd, after Christmas, but people are still there and into it. It’s amazing.”
If you go . . .
For information on the 3rd Annual St. John’s Mummers Festival: www.mummersfestival.ca
For details on the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra: www.nso-music.com/
Spirit of Newfoundland: www.spiritofnewfoundland.com/