Sunday 1 December 2013

Newfoundland folklorist collecting mummer memories and photos

As Christmas time rolls around in Newfoundland and Labrador, your chances of seeing someone dressed in a very strange costume increase dramatically. These are padded figures, with humps on their backs, protruding bellies, shoes on the wrong feet, their auntie’s bra on the outside of their clothes, with faces hidden behind masks or bits of old lace.

These figures might be called different names in different parts of the province: mummers, janneys, darbies, or fools. It is an old tradition, which has faded in many communities, but at the same time, it is one which many people are reluctant to abandon completely.

Folklorist and storyteller Dale Jarvis is one of those people. The author of several books on local ghost stories, legends and folklore, he is now turning his attention to the province’s most beloved Christmas tradition. This holiday season, he is doing research on mummering, with the aim of producing a book on the subject in time for next Christmas.

“One thing I hear all the time from older people is, ‘oh, no one is interested in that old stuff,’ but I really think people are interested,” says Jarvis. “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are very passionate about their heritage and their culture, and there is a great revival of interest in mummering happening right now.”

Jarvis has been digging through archives and old newspapers, and interviewing people with memories about the different aspects of mummering.

“Mummering traditions are a lot more varied than people might think,” says Jarvis. “How a janney might have rigged out in one outport might be completely different from how they dressed in another. And there are regional traditions that are very different, like the Old Christmas Day tradition of Nalajuit in Labrador, or the Wren Boy traditions in Colliers and St. Mary’s.”

Jarvis is interested in all these different types of Christmas traditions, and is turning to the public for help.

“The public can help in two ways,” says Jarvis. “First, I’m interested in hearing people’s memories of mummers and janneys. Second, I’m looking for old photographs of people in disguise. Christmas is a time when families look through old photo albums, and I’d love people to keep their eyes open for vintage photos of mummers and janneys.”

If you have a memory to share, you can contact Jarvis by phone at 709-685-3444 or by email at Or, if you have an old photo you want the world to see, you can post it in the Vintage Newfoundland Christmas group on Facebook.

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