Attending the Hobby Horse Workshop: A Snappy Tradition.
Every year during the Christmas season Newfoundlanders and Labradorians dress from head-to-toe donning themselves with masks, over-sized bras, sheets, lace curtains, lampshades, various articles of clothing and so much more. By disguising themselves they blur gender lines and defy convention, but most importantly they conceal their identity. They parade about, singing and dancing as they go from door to door calling on the homes of their friends and neighbours who invite them in for drinks, and try to guess their identities.
This 400-year-old Newfoundland and Labrador tradition known as Mummering (also known as Jannying in some parts of the province) has stood the test of time, however altering slightly to change with modern culture. Brought over with settlers from Europe in the early 1800s, Mummering has seen rises and declines in its popularity. Recently there has been resurgence in participation with the annual Mummer’s Festival. Just 3-years-old this event is meant to help reinvigorate this distinct cultural practice with workshops, lectures and talks, a colourful parade and a wild (family friendly) party.
An integral part of the whole Mummering tradition is the making and wearing of a hobby horse. The hobby horse is an odd creation, with a horse-like head, beady eyes, crooked hobnail teeth and a giant hunch back. It has a reputation for being menacing and terrifying— often clearing a room of small children upon entry. This frightening creature has been known to snap at strangers and turn off ceiling lights by pulling the string with its crooked teeth. But most of all it’s known to chase people around in an awkward and hobbling fashion. The Hobby horses custom arose long ago when people used to dry out the heads and hides of their animals, drape them over their bodies and chase people around at festive times of year—just a tad creepy.
I had heard about the hobby horse workshop the Mummer’s Festival was putting on, and I decided to dive in and see what the fuss was all about. I convinced my crafty friend Jill to tag along and we set forth to the pool house at Victoria Park excited by the prospect of creating our own sinister stallions.
We were greeted by friendly volunteers eager to help us set up a station. We gathered our materials and were given big cardboard cutouts for the horses’ heads. We bent the cardboard where the dotted lines dictated, and used a load of duct tape to hold it together. Magically our flat cardboard pieces transformed into three dimensional heads—sort of, we still had a lot of work to do.
Next we were guided to the station where you assemble the horse’s gnarled teeth. By hammering nails into small rounded wooden planks, its threatening mouth started to take shape. Jill’s father owns a hardware store, so she had no trouble lining up the nails and hammering them in. I, on the other hand, had to try several times, and even then they didn’t line up at all. Lucky for me, a hobby horse is supposed to look disheveled, so I decided to embrace its imperfections and move forward. Next, we used a hot glue gun and staple gun to secure the planks onto our horse head, and tied a string through the planks to create its signature snapping jaw. Success! My horse’s jowl smacked together in a loud and abrupt nature just the way it was intended.
Now it was time for our horses to really take form—it was the decorating stage. Hot glue gun in hand, Jill and I rooted through the bins of fabric, faux fur, feathers, pom-poms, ribbon and other crafty materials supplied. We had also brought our own supplies, which we later donated for next year’s workshop. All around me children and adults alike vigilantly crafted their horses adding their own individual spin. I heard one of the volunteers exclaim, “that no two hobby horses are alike” and after looking at the array that was before me, I couldn’t agree more. I secured a subtle zebra-like fabric on my horse head (this took some time lining up the fabric just right), and then made fabric ears with some feather details. I brought along an old stuffed animal with big dewy eyes, and cut them out to stick on the head. I thought it made my horse look sweet and gentle, while Jill said it looked insanely creepy. Jill’s was vibrant and colourful with a Hawaiian patterned head, and big flowery eyes. After the head was complete, we attached a big piece of fabric for us to hide under, and shoved a broomstick up the bottom of the head to help balance our works of art.
I looked around as people proudly showed off their hobby horses—and was amazed at how great they all looked, every one different and unique to the person holding it. We all chatted about how we couldn’t wait to try them out next week at the Mummer’s parade. This will be my first time experiencing the Mummers Festival, and I can’t wait. I’m going to take my horse out for a spin, snap at children, frighten some adults, but mostly just have some foolish fun—because that’s really what this tradition is all about.