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Mum's --- the Word About Christmas
Mum's the word about Christmas
Twenty years ago I wrote a short column about the unique Newfoundland Christmas tradition of mummering (The Whig Standard Dec. 23, 1998). I retrieved, revised and updated it into a fresh recounting of that lost Christmas tradition.
The fact that I was born in St. Johnâï¿½ï¿½s, Newfoundland and that my mother grew up in the Newfoundland outport of Ireland's Eye, tweaked my curiosity about this fascinating and intriguing part of that provinceâï¿½ï¿½s folklore. In the purest sense, a mummer, is defined as a masked actor or performer. For over 100 years, mummering, sometimes called mumming or Janneying, had been celebrated annually in Newfoundland during the Twelve Days of Christmas. This celebration was most popular in the old outports which were remote, isolated, mostly coastal fishing communities. Each Christmas season, residents would practise their creative talents by dressing up in homemade costumes to conceal their identities. They might wear long underwear, oilskins, sheets, and quilts. Masks, paper bags or pillows cases, often decorated with paints or crayons, disguised faces. Socks often hid hands and bags covered shoes. Cross-dressing by both sexes was not uncommon.
These "scary aliens" would head out to neighbours' homes, knock on doors and call out, "Are mummers allowed in?" Once inside, the hosts were expected to try to identify their visitors. After the identification process was completed, the occupants of the homes would provide guest mummers with refreshments like fruitcake, molasses bread, Purity syrup (popular in Newfoundland) wine or grog (screech or rum usually drunk straight). A mummer or two might produce a guitar, accordion, "ugly sticks" and/or a mouth organ to lead in some singing and dancing.
Mummering did not originate in Newfoundland. Some form of this practice appeared in Ancient Egypt and over the centuries, spread throughout the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe including England, Scotland and Ireland. In England festival throngs would go to manor houses to perform songs, dances and acrobatics for the lords and their families in hope of receiving contributions for their efforts. These festivities sometimes got violent, occasionally resulting in a death. Nuisance laws, mostly unenforceable, were put in place to stop or at least reduce mummer lawlessness but celebrations in rural areas continued, albeit illegally. From this setting, mummering came to the shores of Newfoundland with English and Irish settlers in the early 19th century, allegedly beginning in 1819. These festivities were not always without problems. Disguising identity sometimes led people, especially people who disliked mummering, to go beyond what is considered normal behavior. Some townspeople created a "hobbyhorse" to haunt the streets, looking for and chasing mummers. Occasionally, drunken groups of men would beat up people with long sticks, sometimes with attached (pig) bladders full of rocks. In 1860 a fisherman was killed by an ax-wielding mummer, leading to a ban on mummering in St, John's but festivities continued for many years, especially in the outports.
As a result of the withdrawal of government services that forced most outport people to "resettle" in the 1950s and 60s, along with increased urbanization and advances in technology, this iconic cultural tradition had all but disappeared.
A revised version of mummering re-emerged in the 1980s. In 1982, a song called The Mummer's Song, made popular by the musical duo called Simani, rekindled a dormant Newfoundland interest in the tradition. The lyrics of the song portray an elderly lady reflecting nostalgically on past Christmases and how much she missed the mummers. In 2009, The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland organized and introduced the annual Mummers Festival in St. John's, a two -week festival (the last week of November and the first week of December) offering numerous family activities. These activities today include the Mummers Memories Mug Up, the Ugly Stick Workshop, Frightening Fools: Presentation, Box and Bucket Mask Workshop, to name a few. The house visitation tradition, often called the âï¿½ï¿½Scuff (food and drink) and Scoff (dancing) welcomes patrons into designated homes for additional celebration. The Festival culminates with the Mummers Parade on the last Saturday.
An official open warm invitation to join in the fun reads as follows:
Build a jaw-snapping hobbyhorse at one of our workshops. Come to our Rig Up, the provinces largest dress up party. And get your gatch (strut) on at the Mummers Parade! The Festival hosts a series of events and workshops leading up to our crowding event, the Mummers Parade. We want you there and in disguise! So shake out those old long johns and borrow your aunt's size 42 bra. We're calling all mummers to the Mummers Parade. (Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)
Gord Sly is a retired high school history teacher/department head from Kingston, Ontario
Those Sunday Suppers
THOSE SUNDAY SUPPERS
by Hayward J. Prince
It had been a fun-filled afternoon of skating and playing hockey with my friends on Princeton's frozen bay. But the sun had slipped behind the hills some time ago and it was getting increasingly difficult to see the puck, so we grudgingly gave in to the inevitable and started to make our way home. We hated to stop playing, but took comfort in the thought that we could do it all again another day. We were also aware that it was high time to head toward shore because, no matter how thick the ice might be out in the bay, when we got closer to the beach the ice would be covered with water because of the movement of the tides. If we reached shore before dark we just might find a dry area leading to the beach, and we could avoid getting wet, frozen feet.
After skating on to the snow-covered beach, most of the boys opted to remove their skates before walking around the harbour toward home. But since my house was so close to the bay, I decided to keep mine on and skate up the hill on the hard packed snow. In five minutes I found myself sitting on the woodbox in our warm porch, unlacing my skates.
I don't think I had thought about food all afternoon or even what day it was, but now the aroma coming from the kitchen left no doubt in my mind that today had to be Sunday. My mother was standing over the hot wood stove, her face glowing brightly. My first words were always the same, "Hope you made lots of gravy." But then she always made more than enough, knowing that I liked all my veggies and meat smothered with that tasty stuff.
Before long the whole family was gathered around the table enjoying a meal that was fit for kings, but in this case, Princes. There was beef, moose meat, corned beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnip and peas. Mom always sat on the side of the table close to the stove so she could fetch us seconds and, sometimes, thirds. Mom kept filling and re-filling our plates until we kids were ready to bust. Mothers are like that, thinking there could be famine tomorrow and her kids could go hungry.
Because this was Sunday supper, I knew I had to leave a little room for dessert. Mom's next words were, "Would someone please get the jelly?" Princeton had no electricity back then, which meant we didn't have a refrigerator, so Mom meant she wanted one of us to fetch the jelly from a snow bank outside, where she had placed it to set earlier that day. Being the youngest in the family at that time, I jumped at any excuse to use the flashlight. So with flashlight in hand, I dashed out the door and soon found a bump in the glistening snow. Thankfully, our cat hadn't found it before I did.
Jelly was a real treat for our family, because it was served only at Sunday supper. No matter what the flavour, whether it was strawberry, raspberry, orange or lime, they all tasted great, and there was the added fun of making it wobble in your dish.
I have to confess that after supper the thought of having to do my homework for school the following day didn't arouse the same enthusiasm as chasing the puck or fetching the jelly, but I consoled myself with the thought that it wouldn't take too long, and there would always be more hockey games and more Sunday suppers to look forward to.
The days of my youth soon turned to manhood, then came marriage and my own family. But the picture is the same today. Over the years, I've watched my wife Kay show the same love to our kids, Brian and Laurel, as my mother did for us, at mealtime always jumping up and down like a yoyo serving seconds and sometimes thirds, and whenever we have roast beef with all the trimmings, with jelly for dessert, those Sunday suppers sixty years ago come to my mind, a happy family and a mother's love.
Ghost of Uncle Bernie
By Irene Way Selkirk, MB The scene is 1957, Norris Point, Newfoundland. We were a tiny outport, a pebbly beach that curved around the bluff on which were perched the colourful houses of less than a hundred outporters. The salt-and-pepper houses were chained with huge spikes driven deep into the ground so they would not fall prey to the Atlantic gales that battered the coast. The houses were given a fresh coat of paint every spring after the salt was scrubbed from the wooden boards. We knew little about the world outside the Tablelands of Norris Point until the Canadian kid came to join our Grade 1-8 schoolroom. His parents were from Fisheries and were to do studies on the cod. They came from some foreign province in Canada with way too many boxes to supply a family of three, and they brought a shiny red, leak-free, sleek boat. We were excited about this newcomer and so were understandably saddened when we discovered he could not speak proper English. He spoke slowly with a strange twang that we had difficulty understanding. At recess time we wanted to explain the rules of our baseball game to him. We shouted, "Stay where you're at till we comes where you're to." He just looked confused, dropped the bat and walked to the next base. We wondered what kind of baseball he played in Canada. And even without the language problem, he stood out among us. He wore pressed trousers and a suit jacket to our plaid shirts, wool pants and wool skirts. His straight blond hair was way too short. We wondered if we should bring his mother a bowl so she could give him a proper haircut. It was the fall of the year when the Canadian kid came and we spent our time after chores preparing for All Hallows Eve, or as we Catholics called it, All Souls Day. It was the day when the souls raised from the graves and took revenge on unsuspecting outporters and, in particular, they were noted to suck the life out of kids. In our outport, we were particularly worried about the ghost of Uncle Bernie. Several years ago, Uncle Bernie was lost at sea by fishing in a leaky dory on Labour Day. The good town dory was being used for a float in the Labour Day parade and since it was the only float, the townspeople were not willing to lend it to Bernie, even though it was a perfect day for fishing. There was very little wind, gentle swells and no fog to be seen for miles. So Uncle Bernie set out in his old leaky dory. Sadly, by noon, the gale force winds shortened the town parade to one town circle. We usually had three to five circles, depending on the level of gas in the snow plow that pulled the adorned dory. Poor Uncle Bernie was washed ashore, with an unforgiving scowl on his face, one week later and we knew there would be a price to pay. His ghost came around every year on All Souls Day, wailing in attics, squeaking in and out of doorways, right though the outporters and whispering around children, who could not run fast, just waiting for a chance to suck the life right out of them. To prepare for All Souls Day (our official day of mummering, which the Canadian kid called Halloween) we spent much time gathering bits of chains, pieces of fishing net and flour bags in hopes of getting our treats from door to door without being bothered by Uncle Bernie. He surely would not recognize us and might even be scared away by our creepy costumes. October 31 came on a Friday that year. We hurried home to the fishing sheds where we had stowed our costumes and met up at the edge of the forest trail. We wrapped ourselves in nets and chains and covered our heads with flour bags, with holes cut for our eyes to see through. We were just picking up our pillowcases when the Canadian kid skipped down from the big house on the hill. He had on a cowboy costume, the likes of which we had never seen before. Sure he had guns, but his face was bare and he seemed unconcerned with the gravity of the situation. We wondered, were all Canadians so dense? But no time to worry: treats were waiting and so was the ghost of Uncle Bernie. We started off through the wooded trail to the houses on the cliff. The Canadian kid was last in line. We whooped and hollered to keep up our courage in the crepuscular light. We were about to leave the rail behind and head across the road to the cliff when someone noticed the Canadian kid was missing. We resisted retracing our steps to look for him. We were sure Uncle Bernie was back there somewhere, and that cowboy costume was just begging for trouble. However, knowing it was the right thing to do, we crept back along the path of knurly twisted trees that had been beaten by storms and were leaning inward, grasping at our chains and netting so much so that we panicked in terror and decided to let the Canadian kid make it on his own when, there he was, lying beside a dead root on the ground, his eyes closed. We called to him, but he made no sound. We grabbed sticks and poked him, but no response. We decided Uncle Bernie had already got to him and sucked the life out of him, so there was nothing we could do. We would repot it at school ion Monday and get out of there now. It was almost too dark to see. The shadows from the full moon, the prickly branches and the wind moaning drove us in wild terror to the town circle, where we reassembled and with shaky voices began our evening "mummering." With the few house visits we managed to cover the bottom of the pillowcases, but our heart was not in the fun. Over the weekend we ate our loot and grieved the loss of the Canadian, but we were unwilling to talk about it to adults, for fear of further angering Uncle Bernie. Monday morning we arrived at school with heaving hearts and there in the front of the room was the Canadian kid. We stared in disbelief. At recess we huddled around him and tried to understand his weird accent as he told his story. "I tripped," he said, "on the tree stump and banged my head. I saw stars. A whisper woke me up and there was Uncle Bernie, that ghost who sank in the leaky boat. He wore a fisherman's hat. He waited while I got to my feet and slowly glided along, beckoning me to follow. He led me all the way home. My parents were worried about my fall an brought me to the hospital in that big town in the valley. While we were there, we went around town trick-or-treating, until my bag was overflowing. You guys could have come, but we could not find you," he said. Now his father told our parents how he found his son stumbling out of the woods on his own, but we all knew not everyone could see ghosts. The Canadian kid became our hero and the most popular kid in school. His story was passed down the grades long after his family moved back to Canada. We were all happy when it was determined the town dory to be used, just for fishing, and we would use the fisheries' sleek, red, shiny city boat for the Labour Day float. We hoped that would appease Uncle Bernie and help him rest in peace. **This is a "true" story that the author recalls from her childhood days growing up in Corner Brook, NL. The names and places have been changed to protect the true identities of the characters depicted.
The Lost Art of Frankum Chewing
For those not familiar, frankum is the hardened sap of spruce trees. It is thought that the tree exudes the sap to heal any damage to it's trunk. History states that the American Indians discovered that frankum contained medicinal properties which aided in the healing of skin irritations, cuts and sores. They also discovered that it could be used as a chewing gum.
I don't know what set of circumstances would allow for the discovery that frankum could be used as a chewing gum. Logical reasons for filling your mouth with tree sap would appear to be few. Experimentation or hunger must have led to it.
Growing up in an outport in the 1950's you appreciated nature and all it had to offer. It provided your work, fun and some challenges. One of those fun challenges was the chewing of frankum. I looked forward to my father's returning home from cutting firewood with anticipation, because I knew he would have his sea-dog match box full of frankum.
Becoming a successful frankum chewer is sort of a process which begins with selection. Avoiding the softer sap in favor of the harder brownish sap is most important. A beginner would be wise to place just one knob of frankum into his or her mouth. An accomplished frankum chewer could master more. You need the right combination of saliva, chewing pressure and patience to transform the frankum into a workable state.
Frankum doesn't have the consistency to enable stretching or bubble blowing as with some gums. If you were to open your mouth during the softening procedure and allow cooler air to enter, all would be lost. The frankum inside your mouth would become brittle and no amount of coaxing would put it back to a chewable state. You would be left with a mouthful of rubble.
When the process is complete, the chewer will have a pale pinkish gum with little flavour. Your jaws will soon tire from chewing frankum because of the lack of elasticity and ductility. After chewing frankum for a short period of time you will experience an overwhelming desire to rid your mouth of it.
With so many tasty alternatives to frankum and the lack of patience of today's generation, I somehow doubt the resurrection of "frankum chewing" anytime soon.