Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council
Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council
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Mummers Festival

Location: St. John's, NL
NLAC Program Funded Under: Community Arts Program
Amount Funded: $5,000


Dates: December 1 to 15, 2014
Project Contact: Ryan Davis
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Artist E-mail:

Since 2009, the Intangible Cultural Heritage division of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial University’s Department of Folklore have worked together to bring The Mummers Festival to members of the St. John’s community.  The idea to create the festival was driven by a desire to conserve a cultural phenomenon in a folklife festival model, and it initially included 16 free community events and workshops.  In 2010 the festival was organized by a group of enthusiastic volunteers and supporters and in 2011 the Mummers Festival incorporated as a non-profit entity.

The festival aims to promote the continuance and evolution of traditional arts and performance by encouraging participation in mummering activities. All events are designed to equip the public with skills and knowledge about mummering so they can participate in parade day events, and hopefully go on to continue the house-visiting traditions that occur during the twelve days of Christmas in Newfoundland and Labrador.


For a festival that has a fundamental pillar involving participation, it has enjoyed a lot of growth in the first few years. Those who have been involved in previous events, workshops, and parades actively share the sense of pride and joy they get from taking part with others.  That growing participation and word of mouth has taken what could have once been seen as a withering tradition and turned it into a growing cultural tradition, once again. The festival has also been honoured with the Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador Cultural Tourism award (2011) and the Manning Award for Excellence in Community Development (2012).  This year, festival activities included Hobby Horse and Ugly Stick Making workshops, a "Rig Up" (the province's largest disguise dress up party), forums, a school touring program and a Mummers Scuff 'n Scoff.  To learn more about this year’s festival went and the festival itself, the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council chats with Ryan Davis, the
festival coordinator.

Q and A with Ryan Davis...

NLAC: What workshops and events were in the line up this year?

Ryan: Workshops this year included Hobby Horse, Ugly Stick, and Bird and Box Mask Making. We offer them on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the workshops are free and people just need to bring themselves, although for the Ugly Stick workshop it was BYOB (bring your own boot)!

NLAC: Were there any other BYO’s people needed to bring to the various events?

Ryan: No, just a sense of curiosity and willingness to participate/interact. Our events are geared toward active participation in place of passive observation.

NLAC: Why is it important to preserve, and potentially further grow, the traditions embraced by the festival?


Ryan: The festival is a different experience from the traditional Christmas-time house visit. Besides wearing foolish disguises, the thread that runs through both versions has something to do with social bonding. In the house-visit, mummers visit friends’ homes over the holiday season as an act of getting together and enjoying the company of others.

At the festival, groups of families, friends, and strangers alike come together on a much larger scale but with similar affect: the experience of being bonded socially. Of course there are many reasons why people mummer in both settings. Beyond social bonding, I think events like the Mummers Parade offer people the opportunity to express their identity on both the personal and regional level.

Participants draw from the many symbolic forms of dress and behaviour that ties them to the larger tradition of mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador. Then they add artistic touches to their disguise and behaviour, making the mummering custom personal and contemporary.

NLAC: Can you share a little bit about the history of these traditions, perhaps how they started and why?

Ryan: The earliest written documents about mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador are found in court records from the early 1800s detailing mummer misdemeanor. They provide some clues to how the tradition used to take place. We can assume that the tradition was alive and strong before these written accounts.

Most directly, mummering, like many of our traditions, would have come from early settlers to the province from England and Ireland. German influence is likely to have played a role in the Inuit Nalujuk tradition of disguise which was present in communities in Labrador that had Moravian Missions.

It’s hard to say how and why these traditions started. The art of disguise seems to be a main feature of mummering no matter what form the tradition takes. Mummering has come in the form of private house-visiting, public marauding, and informal play acting. I can only guess that the ‘why’ of mummering is individually based and influenced by time and place. The reasons to mummer are as varied as the interpretation of any art.

NLAC: Can you talk about the different aspects of mummering (regionally through the province), the different terms associated with the traditions, and what they mean?


Ryan: Mummer, janney, fool and guiser are all words used in this province to describe the same thing more or less: the disguised stranger. Nalujuk Night, unique to Nain, Makkovik, and Hopedale, is a Labrador Inuit tradition of disguise where the terrifying Nalujuk chases children who, in turn, must sing a song to avoid getting a tap from the Nalujuk’s stick. They are rewarded with gifts or sweets if they manage to sing despite the fear of the menacing creatures.

The hobby horse is another component of mummering although less popular. Once made from the skulls of animals, modern-day hobby horses are more likely crafted from wood, styrofoam, and cardboard. They tend to have a hinged jaw which can be snapped pulling a string and are known to be real tormentors. The ribbon fool was a person dressed in a very colourful costume, usually hundreds of ribbons attached to their clothing. Ribbon fools were typically not disguised but they would visit homes during the holidays. The wren tradition involves the visitation of homes during the holidays with some kind of a small bird (a real bird that was killed or some kind of fake bird). Wren boys (or girls) would recite a poem about the wren. The host would typically offer up food, drink, or money in exchange.

NLAC: Who is involved in making the festival take place each year?

Ryan: A community of people makes this festival. I am the only staff and we have a volunteer Board of Directors. The festival relies on the efforts of about 50 volunteers each year. I feel very fortunate that so many passionate, responsible and dedicated people choose to help make this event happen each year. It really is a community effort.

NLAC: Can you share a little more about the school touring aspect of the festival, and why that’s important?

Ryan: Like all our events leading up to Parade Day, the Mini Mummers School Program acts as a momentum builder for our crowning event. Many people here are familiar with the image of a mummer yet they don’t know the finer points about the customary act of mummering. That is why we run this program.

NLAC: How do the students who get to take part in the school touring component react to the activity and information?

Ryan: They all get quite excited during the program and sometimes I feel sorry for the teachers who have to deal with all that high energy once we leave! The program gives students an opportunity to not only learn about the tradition but also to experience some parts of it, like dressing in disguise and playing the guessing game. Sometimes the students get to dress a teacher in the most ridiculous of disguises. This always gets a lot of laughs.

NLAC: How does the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council (NLAC) funding from the Community Arts Program help?


Ryan: We could never pull this festival off without the support of many and the Community Arts Program is a significant contributor to our festival. We intentionally keep our events free to the public with the aspiration that anyone in the region could join in no matter what resources they may have.

NLAC: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Ryan: What I really noticed this year was the positive affect the festival has on families, especially. I think the festival successfully taps into the spirit of the holiday season and the essence of mummering: people connecting with each other in a lighthearted way. I get to witness a lot of people express their joy uninhibitedly. That’s what makes the work worthwhile to me.