'Mummers' making a comeback

Story highlights

  • Mummering is a quirky holiday tradition on the Canadian island of Newfoundland
  • Years ago, people would go door to door in disguise and party with their neighbors

(CNN)Every December in St. John's, Newfoundland, people parade the streets wearing creepy masks, fake horse heads and their underwear on the outside.

The spectacle is all part of the Mummers Festival, which celebrates a once-banned, centuries-old tradition in the province called mummering.
    Mummering originated in England and Ireland, and the earliest record of it in Newfoundland dates to 1819, according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage project. During Christmas season, people would disguise their identities using a mishmash of household items and travel door to door to neighbors' homes. Neighbors would invite them in for impromptu parties with food and drinks, all while attempting to identify the masked visitors. Once an identity was determined, the mask came off.
    In an effort to preserve this quirky part of Newfoundland's culture, the first-ever Mummers Festival was born in 2009 and is now going into its eighth year. The annual festival consists of numerous community events and culminates in the Mummers Parade.
    Canadian photographer Darren Calabrese documents this cultural revival in his photo series "Mummers." His images show Newfoundlanders dressed in their best disguises. One woman wears a lampshade on her head and covers her face with a doily. One man, covered in ribbons, plays the part of the "ribbon fool," a prankster in traditional mummering.
    Photographer Darren Calabrese
    "The province has put their stamp on it," Calabrese said. "It's a celebration of the good, authentic parts of mummering."
    The reputation of mummering in Newfoundland has had a troubled past. The 1830s saw the first case of violence linked to mummering. In the following decades, excessive drinking and religious and political tensions began to fuel more mummering-related violence, according to the Heritage project. After the alleged murder of a man named Isaac Mercer in 1861, authorities in Newfoundland made mummering festivities illegal, and the ban remained in place for almost a century.
    Although some aspects of mummering lived on through plays and community shows, it largely fell out of practice until the Newfoundland folk duet Simani's "The Mummer's Song" became popular in 1983. The song revived an interest in mummering among Newfoundlanders, and the practice began to take off again.
    Calabrese said the mummering of today has transformed from Christmases past. He attributes this change to Newfoundland's struggling economy, which has led many people to leave their neighborhoods for better job opportunities. This has fractured communities, he says, and the idea of going door to door wearing a mask now makes some uncomfortable, as many people don't know their neighbors as well as older generations might have.
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    "It's telling of a different world now," Calabrese said. "But maybe what they're hoping is that by reviving this, maybe the practice will get picked back up."
    Calabrese said today mummering largely appeals to people in their early 20s to late 30s, people who have no prior history with mummering at all. But with revival efforts like the Mummers Festival now in place, it looks as though this eccentric tradition will continue to flourish and evolve.
    For Calabrese, the custom is a perfect example of Newfoundland's unique character.
    "Mummering is such a representation of Newfoundland as a whole," Calabrese said. "It's only in a place like that that something like that could thrive."