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Mummering In The Outports
by D.W.S. Ryan

During the 1940s when I taught at Dunfield in Trinity Bay, Beaumont South in Notre Dame Bay, and Grand Bruit on the south coast, mummering was practiced in the traditional manner in all three communities. We dressed up, put on false faces - we didn't call them masks - and trudged from door to door, avoiding those houses in which there was a death during the year. In such houses no mummers were let in. It was customary to mourn for a year, and Christmas festivities were curtailed or forbidden. The following was written in the early 1950s.

Christmas is here and in all the outports the traditional spirit of the festive season takes away. Mummers tramp every village lane and bypath and beat on nearly every door. It's exciting, and without these disquised tramps it would be a dead Christmas in the outports.
Everyone looks forward these nights to harsh raps on the back door and everyone stands ready to extend a jovial welcome to the comic figures, draped in fluttering clothes and veiled in funny masks.

Strangest of Tones
Inside they seat themselves around the kitchen and converse in the strangest of tones. Now find out who is who.
Everybody sizes them up. Some are examined, and allow it, whereas others resent it. There's a lot of prodding, fun making, and conversation.
And requests. Naturally they ask for Christmas cake and something strong to drink with it. Everybody expects this sweet request to be forthcoming and generally everybody is prepared to pass around the plate and the glasses too.

Dance on the Back Porch
And then the dance. Uncle John takes the kerosene lamp and leads the group to the back porch where they beat it out to the sagging rhythm of the floor beams.
There is always somebody around with a mouth organ or an accordion. When there's no instrument at hand you can always fall back on Aunt Mary. She knows the familiar ditties, and her vocal chords are as good as they ever were. Her dadada-da's soon tire the mummers out and they stroll out through the door, into the night and trudge off to someone's else's house to go through the same exercise.
This mummering custom is an old one. It dates back to the middle ages and was customary in England up to the time the colonists came to North America at the beginning of the seventeenth century. With them they brought their present-day customs but they have changed somewhat with the centuries.
The original mummering was a play that was acted in the kitchen. It dates back to the middle ages. The play was very short and its cast consisted of three chief characters and two or three minor ones.
The leader of the group was Father Christmas who introduced the play. The other characters staged a hand-to-hand fight. There was Saint George, the patron saint of England, and a Turkish Knight or some other stalwart figure.
In the combat Saint George emerged the hero whereas his opponent, badly defeated, lay fatally wounded. But he soon recovered through the black magic performances of a witch doctor.
It was during this resurrection scene that the comic element entered the play and drew forth a torrent of uproarious laughter from the spectators. The play then ended and the group trudged off to another house to re-enact the same scene.
This old custom was practised in Newfoundland by the early inhabitants but it faded with the years, taking on local colour and hilarity, until our present manner of mummering lost all shreds of its original play-acting.
Odd and comical as the custom is, it adds zest and colour to Christmas in the outports.

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