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The Mummers Parade: embracing traditions and losing inhibitions

Photo by Jessica Tipping Penney

Last weekend, hundreds upon hundreds of people in St. John’s paraded through the streets. Men were dressed as women, women were dressed as men. Underwear was worn as outerwear and even small children were merrily sporting bras stuffed with socks over the tops of their various layers. There were lots of ingeniously creative hobbyhorses prancing around and it was almost impossible to count the number of ugly sticks and accordions.

Ugly sticks (noise makers) in the foreground (photo by Jessica Tipping Penney)

It’s all just another Christmas in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Mummers Parade was the grand finale of the Mummers Festival. Just three years old, the festival was conceived to reinvigorate the centuries-old tradition of mummering (also known as jennying or jannying) in the province, which arrived here in the early 1800s from England. At Christmastime, friends and neighbours cover their faces and disguise themselves with old articles of clothing and padding. They parade about, singing and dancing, calling on the homes of their friends and neighbours who ask them in for drinks, and try to guess their identities.

Mummering seems to have survived nowhere in the world as strongly as it has here in Newfoundland and Labrador – despite a lull in recent decades. Well, it’s back with a vengeance now. A vengeance of fun – because having fun is what it’s all about.

Photo by Jessica Tipping Penney

At the beginning of this year’s parade, everyone gathered in a hall at a downtown elementary school for a colourful kind of clothing swap. Diving into piles of old (clean!) items ranging from skirts and blouses to pants and overalls with the scattered bit of underwear thrown in for good measure.

I decided to go for a bit of a double bluff. I dressed as a girl pretending to be a guy, pretending to be a girl. I forgot to add padding though, so I looked a bit scrawny compared to some of the other more, erm, plentifully-endowed participants. Also, my face wasn’t completely covered because I had to be able to take photos.

Yep. That's me in there  (photo by Jessica Tipping Penney)

A mummer’s costume is so easy to cobble together, yet dramatic and outlandish in appearance. It’s a perfect way to discard your inhibitions and throw caution to the wind. The whole point is to dress so that no one – even your closest friends – would recognize you. Even your voice should sound different. It’s like an extended game of charades – only better, because there’s music, dancing, food and drink and you can twirl and stomp your feet and sing out of tune at the top of your lungs and no one will judge you because, well, they don’t know who you are and anyway, you’re acting just as foolish as the next person.

Photo by Jessica Tipping Penney

The day of the parade was clear and sunny and people clamoured in the streets with cameras and wide smiles to witness the spectacle of so much exuberance dancing and singing past their front doors. The mummers gambolled along the colourful row house streets of several downtown neighbourhoods and also Bannerman Park, before winding up at The Rooms (provincial art gallery, museum and archives), which was waiting, all set up for a party.

Ravenous mummers piled in, filing the huge hallways and they fell on the cookies, cakes and drinks that were generously laid out for them by the hundreds (mummering is hungry work). A mummering band set up by the huge atrium windows with their breathtaking view of the Narrows, and people began to dance up a scuff while bystanders watched and clapped. There was even a special place to get your photo taken called ‘Mummeries Forever.’ The photographer there had his work cut out. The line-up was enormous.

Afterwards, as I eventually made my way home from The Rooms to where I live just a few minutes away, it occurred to me that the atmosphere of the parade had embodied nothing but pure happiness. I hadn’t seen a single child cry, and there were so many children – from tiny babies upwards – surrounded by costumes and masks, which under normal circumstances might seem a bit scary. But the sense of unity within the gathering of these hundreds of characters, brought together by a love of their enduring culture, made for not only a fun, but also strangely reassuring celebration. Even the dogs hadn’t seemed fazed. I was almost home, lost in my thoughts, before I began to wonder why people passing by were giving me unusually long looks. I’d completely forgotten I still had my full costume on and with the parade nowhere in sight, was now totally alone and out of context. Embarrassed, I went to haul the scarf and hat off my head but then I stopped. Why bother? I was in complete disguise. No one would know who I was anyway. So I smiled a knowing mummers smile, stomped on my inhibitions and continued on with an extra bit of dance in my step.                                                                (Above two photos by Jessica Tipping Penney)