A story about “Mumming” (Mummering) in old Newfoundland

The information below is from the book, “There Never Was A Better Time.” The novel is a tale of two mischievous young men, who in 1921 immigrated to Canada from the small fishing village of Burin Bay in Newfoundland, in the days prior to confederation. Their parents, John and Mary Taylor, grandfather Job, and younger brothers remained in the homestead beside the rocky shoreline of Burin Bay. This story tells of the first Christmas that the family in Newfoundland did not celebrate the holidays together.

For a history of the tradition of Mumming, follow the link: https://tayloronhistory.com/2011/12/08/the-christmas-tradition-of-mumming-mummering-in-old-newfoundland/

The passage below tells about members of the Taylor family participating in “mummering.”

  A Story About Mumming (Mummering) in Old Newfoundland


On the Monday evening following Christmas Day in 1921, the pantry of the Taylor home buzzed like a hive. Mary Taylor was in the kitchen, and, because her family had closed the pantry door, she was unable to observe their preparations. Her father-in-law Job, her husband John, and sons Herb, and Les, were dressing to go mumming. They laughed and made humorous comments as they donned their disguises. For several months, they had secreted away, in an empty barrel, old clothing, netting, paper bags, burlap, and animal skins. They now brought them out.

Old Job began by placing an old curtain and a well-worn fishing net over his head to hide his white hair and beard. Disguising his features further, he attached to his face with twine a large, ugly cardboard nose so that it protruded prominently beneath the netting. On his head was a floppy paper hat, and his on hands he wore dirty fishing gloves. He wore old, ragged trousers and a shirt he had borrowed from a man in Pat’s Cove. Under the shirt, on his left shoulder, he inserted a small mound of hay, creating the illusion of a deformed hunchback. Wrapped around him was a brown blanket full of patches and holes. On his feet he wore borrowed boots that were several sizes too large, stuffed with wads of folded paper to fill the empty space. The thick boot-heels gave him extra height, disguising his short stature. All traces of dignified Uncle Jobby of Burin Bay had been successfully disguised, and in his stead was a hideous old creature, hunched and bent as if from many years of unsavoury deeds.

John Taylor, father of the boys, pulled a tattered one-piece suit of underwear over his clothes and stuffed rags inside to change his body shape. He rubbed the underwear with soot from the stove, making it appear as if he had just escaped from the earthy depths of the grave. Then, he enlarged the holes in the discarded suit and stuffed them with clumps of red paper, simulating dried blood. John whitened his face to appear like a ghost and covered his head with a floppy straw hat, painted white. A long, flowing trail of white muslin protruded from under the headgear to enhance the effect of an evil spirit of the night. As an added touch, he had whitewashed his borrowed oversized boots. If seen on the road at night, John would indeed be a sight to instill fear.

Herb, the oldest of the sons remaining in Burin, chuckled as he observed his father and grandfather, but he felt that his own costume was their equal. He had secured old clothes from a family he knew in Epworth, and wore them inside out. Stove-polish blackened his face and hands, and on his head was a hideous, dishevelled mess of torn rabbit skins. Herb had cut off the toes of an enormous pair of discarded boots, and he inserted his feet in the opposite direction, creating the illusion that he was walking backward.

Les, the next oldest, laughed as he admired his brother’s efforts, but was determined not to be outdone. He applied cocoa powder to his face to turn it brown, glued dyed wool to his face with spruce gum, attached a charred cork to the end of his nose, and fitted paper ears over his own to create the appearance of a scruffy mongrel. Brown burlap covered his body, and hanging behind him was a long tail of woven rags. He had decided that the only sounds he would emit during the evening would be those of a barking, whining dog. A dog he resembled, and a dog he would be.

From the kitchen, Mary heard the laughter in the pantry as the Taylor males prepared for the evening’s activities. Little did she realize that she was to be their first victim. They had hidden their costume materials from her, and she had no idea what they had decided to wear. The revellers left unseen through the back door and hid inside the small barn where the Taylors kept their sheep. They waited about ten minutes, during which time they were joined by two of the Frampton boys, who were also attired in strange clothes and wore false faces. Their numbers increased to six, they took two lanterns from the barn and, without lighting them, proceeded down the road away from the Taylor homestead. When they had gone a respectable distance, they lit the lanterns and walked back toward the house.

The group knew that the youngest of the Taylor sons, Bill and Onslow, would be watching from the kitchen window facing the road and would think that a group of mummers had arrived from the other side of the cove. They hoped that Mary would never guess that four of them were members of her own family. Herb and Les imagined the squeals of delight from their younger brothers when they informed their mother that there were mummers on the road approaching the house. Onslow’s worst fear was that the costumed revellers might pass by and visit another family, thus depriving him of the thrill of experiencing evil spirits, ghosts, and wicked creatures.

A heavy knock thudded against the door of the front porch, and a shrill voice cried, “Will ye let any mummers in this night?” In other parts of Newfoundland, a traditional poem allowed entrance, but in Burin, they asked a simple question. Mary opened the door cautiously. Bill and Onslow, their eyes wide with anticipation, hovered behind their mother, waiting impatiently for the fun to commence.

There was much laughter as the costumed guests entered, and when they got to the kitchen, it increased in volume. One of the Frampton lads jumped onto a chair, the group having selected him to be the first to perform. In a high-pitched voice, he squeaked, “I’m a ghost from the North Pole, and I knows each person here, along with their horrible deeds and secrets!” When he informed Mary that she had slept poorly the previous night and had carefully washed all the teacups that afternoon, her mouth opened in amazement. Job had supplied the Frampton boy with this information, as well as several facts that were more personal. As Mary’s puzzlement increased, Onslow and Bill howled with pleasure.

“Where are ye from?” Mary demanded. “No person around here is from the North Pole.”

“I’m from so far north that ye knows me naught. I travels with the wind of the night on winged feet,” came the reply.

Feeling bold, Onslow shouted, “With those big feet, you could stomp to ‘Tario and back!” The remark brought hoots and hollers from everyone, and the merriment increased when the mummers danced and comically paraded around. Job waved a handkerchief as he pranced, and John energetically threw his large white hat into the air. Les made barking noises, and Herb stomped his feet heavily.

Job grasped Mary’s bread pans from the shelf above the stove and banged them together, while the others clapped their hands. They all behaved more brazenly than any of them would have dared had their identities not been hidden.

Next, they broke into song, disguising their voices by creating an exaggerated discordant rendition, and then added a few nonsense poems. After the recitations ended, Onslow shrieked, “That be grandfather! I knows he!” The jig was now up, in more ways than one. True to the rules of mumming, Job lifted his veil and confirmed his identity. After he had unmasked, the names of the others were guessed within minutes. The laughter continued a while longer, while everyone appreciated the hilarious effect of the mummers having visited their own home.

“Goodness gracious, what a surprise!” Mary declared as she brought out cake and mugs of hot cider. Compliments were generous concerning the costumes and the riotous performances, and everyone agreed that the other families of the cove would have considerably more difficulty discerning their identities.

Onslow glowed in the warmth of praise when Mary told him that his brain was as sharp as his father’s razor. “Sweet hour of prayer,” she said. “I would never have known your grandfather. I was completely at sea!”

Finally, the mummers departed into the darkness to inflict their mirth on other families of Burin Bay. It was difficult to say who had more fun during the course of the evening, the mummers or their victims. The coup de grace occurred when they visited a home where a large dinner party was in progress. The increased size of the audience added boldness to the entertainment.

In one home, Job leaped up onto a chair. His son and grandsons were more surprised than those who were without costumes. He delivered his opening remarks in a voice far different from his normal one. Nobody guessed his identity. Later, they agreed that Job’s performance had surpassed his role as Santa Claus. Though advanced in years, there remained plenty of youthful energy and wit in him. He truly possessed a firm determination to greet the world with enthusiasm. Life could demand no more of anyone. A truly exhausted group indeed returned to the Taylor house late that night.

Though the mumming continued during the following nights, Mary felt that no group created quite as much fun as her own family.

A link to the book, “There Never Was a Better Time,” https://tayloronhistory.com/there-never-was-a-better-time/

The author’s Home Page ; https://tayloronhistory.com/

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