Mummers – A Costumed Holiday Tradition

David Blackwood Portrait of Heber Fifield

David Blackwood, Portrait of Heber Fifield as a Great Mummer 2000, etching and aquatint, Gift of the artist, McMaster Museum of Art Collection

Holiday traditions are always fun. For the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, those traditions include mummers.

The term mummer comes from the French word momer, which loosely means disguise. A mummer has come to mean a disguised merrymaker. Mumming is a performance by actors (mummers) in disguise, and it is usually celebrated in either a parade, or a house performance.

Mummers originated in Ireland and the U.K. and can be traced back to celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas in the Middle Ages, traditions likely going back to much earlier Druidic rituals surrounding the winter solstice. The tradition is most prevalent today in Newfoundland and Labrador, where it has seen a resurgence in recent years with festivals and parades around the Christmas holidays.  The recent Mummers parade in St. John’s Newfoundland was the biggest in years.

Groups of mummers can also be seen during the Christmas season, visiting homes of friends and family in disguise, and asking for admittance.  After the homeowner has guessed the mummer’s identity, the mummer removes his mask, enjoys a refreshment and provides some sort of entertainment before departing for the next house. All in all, it seems to me that the mummer’s Christmas tradition is kind of like a jolly Halloween.

David Blackwood - 3 Mummers

David Blackwood, Three Mummers on Winsor’s Point, 1979, coloured etching and aquatint, Gift of the Class of 1931, McMaster Museum of Art Collection

David Blackwood (Canadian, born 1941) is deeply attached to his Newfoundland roots and shares the stories, traditions and history of that province in his art.  Mummers are featured in two of his prints in McMaster’s collection, Portrait of Heber Fifield as a Great Mummer, and Three Mummers on Winsor’s Point. These works of art show mummers in their disguises, probably getting ready to visit someone’s house during the twelve days of Christmas. Blackwood’s images help spread knowledge on the maritime tradition, so that others may enjoy it as well.

- Maryssa Barras,
HWDSB Secondary School Coop student

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