This traditional ritual, also known as jennying or jannying in Newfoundland, includes individuals dressing up in colorful attire, covering their faces, and altering their voices to disguise their identity. They then go from house to house seeking money or gifts.
Newfie mummers date back to at least 1650 when they appeared on stage at the first European settlers party in St. John's. The tradition was so popular that it continued even after masks were banned by law in 1785. Mummering only stopped when more important things came up (like fighting the war against America).
Today, newfie mummers play a part in celebrating May Day, an international holiday that dates back to early medieval times. People dress up in costume and go from door to door asking for money or food. This is done in order to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring.
There are several groups in Newfoundland that include mummers in their celebrations. Some examples include the Bonaventura Fire Company in St. John's, the Eastern Island Mummer's Society, and the Southern Peninsula Mummer's Society.
People usually become newfie mummerers between ages three and six. They are taught how to cover their faces with cloths and how to speak in a different voice.
In Newfoundland, mommering has traditionally meant, in its most basic form, dressing up in a disguise and walking from house to home, visiting your neighbors. It's a type of game in which the hosts try to guess the identities of the mummers at each stop. The game can be played by as many people as there are houses to visit. Each person chooses a role: actor, actress, policeman, fireman, or mayor. There are no rules about who can be used as actors or mayors, so any member of the family can be chosen for these roles.
There are several variations on this traditional game. A new version can be played with e-mail instead of foot traffic. Another variation involves using imagination instead of reality when choosing roles: for example, one could be an animal (e.g., cat) and go from house to house pretending to be a cat. Still another variation might include visiting multiple neighborhoods within a single town or city.
The original purpose of mumming was to get money into poor families during the potato famine era of 1845-1855. Young men would dress up in old clothes and travel around the island selling pies made from the leftover potatoes from the harvest. These "pies" were actually just plain potatoes cooked with meat or fish if you could afford it. They didn't have crusts or filling like today's pies!
"It's any man, woman, or kid participating in the dream of song, dance, and costume grandeur on January 1st in the annual Philadelphia New Year's Day parade," Martz explained. The Mummers spend a full year making costumes, creating skits, and preparing their shows. Then on New Year's Day they travel down Broad Street in Philadelphia wearing their costumes and performing their shows for everyone to see.
The Mummers represent anyone who has ever dreamed of being part of a show business team work environment where people care about each other and enjoy themselves. Many stars have begun their careers as Mummers including Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Paul Stanley (the Sylvester Stallone of wrestling), Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin.
There are currently more than 100 groups across the country that call themselves "Mummers." Some perform at private parties, some tour Canada to celebrate Christmas, and some travel around the United States putting on shows for money. But all Mummers share one common goal: to dress up in funny clothes and dance around to entertain people.
In addition to being a start point for many actors' careers, the Mummers also represent freedom because they are allowed to express themselves through their performances and costumes without worrying about getting paid or having fans wait for them at a hotel after a show.
This is why we say that being a Mummer is a dream job.
Then on January 1, they meet at a pre-determined location (usually near where the parade will pass) and put on a show for friends and family.
The name "Mummer" comes from the English word "mumming," which refers to the practice of wearing costumes during holiday seasons. People would go from house to house with no intention of staying with anyone, just to get a free meal and some new clothes. This event originated with poor people who would dress up as rich people to ask for food during Lent (the period between Easter and Holy Week when Christians reflect on their sins and prepare themselves for Christ's return).
Today, the Mummers perform in parades throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, usually around New Year's Eve. Although this activity began as a religious ritual, today it is mainly done for fun. There are two main groups that participate in the parade: professional actors and musicians who work for cash, and amateur "crews" who provide equipment and help create costumes and sets.
Each group has its own hierarchy.