If a stranger in disguise knocks on your door in Newfoundland during the 12 days of Christmas, it’s best if you answer the door. Each year, the province takes part in a tradition dating back to 1819 known as Mummering.
During that time, people dress up in odd disguises, including capes, masks, fake horse heads, and more, and visit their neighbors, friends, and family.
The homeowner can then choose to invite the mummer into their home, at which point they will do some type of performance. The host then tries to gu
ess the mummers’ identity. Once they are accurately identified the mummer can take off their costume and enjoy a bit of holiday merriment with their host.
One day each year, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, they fill the streets with misshapen, masked figures. They are wrapped in quilts and oversized jac
kets, or bright boots and distinctive dresses, with undergarments worn on the outside.
They obscure their faces behind gruesome disguises, lacy veils, giant horseheads, or beneath ghost-like pillowcases. These are Newfoundland’s m
ummers, the latest iteration of a centuries-old tradition that has its roots in Europe but is entirely unique to this Canadian island.
More than a thousand people come out to the Mummers Parade each year, to feel what it’s like to shed their normal identity for at least a
Newfoundland is as far east as you can go on North America’s Atlantic seaboard if you start in Maine and head northeast, past New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, eventually you’d reach this vast island.
St. John’s, the capital, has a similar feel to a historic New England harbor town, where the water’s never far away, only here the row houses are painted bright red, blue, teal, yellow, even purple and salmon pink.
For many long years, Newfoundland was a plac
e mostly isolated from the rest of the world, dotted with fishing communities that were mostly isolated from each other. It’s a classic set-up for divergent evolution, where seclusion incubates unique traits.
island’s tradition of mummering was exported from a very specific part of the British Isles and refined into its own particular species, which, threatened by change, almost went extinct until just a few years ago, when a local organization intervened in its
imminent death and resuscitated mummering for the modern world.
Over time, mummering traditions diverged and developed from place to place within the British Isles and spread, with British settlers, across the world.
Philadelphia’s Mummers’ Day Parade is derived, in part, from Britain’s mummer plays, in combi
nation with Christmastime rituals that other Europeans brought to the city.
But as mummering has been passed down, it’s morphed in each place into an idiosy
ncratic tradition. Mummers also have to disguise their faces, and they worked with what was available, an old lace curtain or tablecloth, a pillowcase or flower sack with eyes cut out and, perhaps, a face painted on it.