Alumnus traces mummering traditions in new book

Dec 22nd, 2014

Jeff Green

Alumnus traces mummering traditions in new book

Twenty years ago Dale Jarvis (MA’01) began a new chapter in his life, moving from his native Ontario to St. John’s to study folklore. His plan was to stay only two years – two decades later he has entrenched himself in the province. By day he’s the only full-time provincially funded folklorist in Canada, working with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. In his free time, he’s also an entrepreneur, storyteller, active volunteer and author releasing his latest book Any Mummers ’Lowed In?: Christmas Mummering Traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador this fall. Contributor Jeff Green caught up with Mr. Jarvis to talk about his latest project.

JG: Why take an interest in mummering?
DJ: I'm fascinated by how complex mummering is. I'm sure every Newfoundlander and Labradorian could say ‘Yes, I know what a mummer is.’ But I think sometimes people assume that the way they do things in their community is the way that people do it in the next community over, and that isn't always the case. There is a rich variety of Christmas traditions in the province, and I love finding out about the specifics of tradition, about how one is slightly different from another. I love the elements of mystery, chaos, and disguise, as well. We don't immediately associate those things with Christmas, but they are certainly part of mummering.

JG: When did you first encountering the tradition of mummering?

Memorial graduate and author Dale Jarvis
DJ: Mummering was definitely not something I knew about growing up in Ontario, but I was introduced pretty quickly to the tradition once moving here.


JG: Do you have a favourite interaction with a mummer?
DJ: I have a great memory of being at the Circular Road home of Memorial English professor Gordon Jones, about a decade or so ago, when Chris Brookes and group of mummers burst in, took over the living room, and performed the Mummers Play. But I think my favourite interaction with mummers, in general, was the very first year of the Mummers Festival, in 2009. We had hired Ryan Davis to organize the first festival, and up until the day of the parade, we really didn't know if it would succeed. But then, crowds of people started showing up, and the atmosphere was one of complete joy. That was pretty memorable. 

JG: How unique is the tradition of mummering in this province compared to other parts of the world?
DJ: Many different places have some version of a year-end costumed celebration similar to mummering. Mummering is not unique to this place, but the way we experience mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador is different from other communities. A couple years ago, I went to Philadelphia for the huge mummers parade they have there. It was amazing, with thousands of elaborately costumed and sequinned mummers, with bands and choreographed dance numbers. The Philly and Newfoundland traditions may have grown from similar roots, but they have spiralled off in very different directions over the centuries.

JG: Why write this new book?
DJ: I think there is an obvious hunger in this province for things related to mummering. We see that in all the craft and artwork that you can buy with mummers on it, in the popularity of the Mummers Festival and the Mummers Walk on the Northern Peninsula, and in the persistence of the tradition itself. In the book, I talk about how people have been bemoaning the "demise" of mummering for over a hundred years, but mummers don't seem to be going anywhere! I knew I didn't want to write a dry academic treatise on the subject; I wanted something that was colourful and fun, like the tradition itself. So the book is packed full of photos, newspaper clippings, funny stories, even a recipe for turkey neck mummers soup. 

JG: How can people contribute to your research on mummering?
DJ: I would love to find more historic photographs of mummers. There aren't a lot of old photos of mummers out there, so if anyone has a photo hiding in a photo album, I'd love to see it.  I would also dearly love to know if anyone has an old hobby horse somewhere in their attic or basement. Hobby horses were part of Christmas mummering in some communities, but today, there are only a very few vintage hobby horses left. People can contact me by email at with photos, stories, or memories of mummers and hobby horses.