History

The evolving identity of Newfoundland's outport jannies

In this archived Canadian Geographic story Ray Guy explores how mummering, once viewed as an embarrassing holdover from the past, has come to symbolize a proud piece of folklore and heritage
  • Dec 23, 2015
  • 441 words
  • 2 minutes
An illustration from Ray Guy's essay from Canadian Geographic's November/December 1993 issue Expand Image
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If you thought Christmas was a time for gaiety and cheer, you’ve clearly never spent the holidays in small-town Newfoundland.

There, they have jannies — local townsfolk disguised in sheets and blankets, who move from house to house hollering and dancing and causing general bouhaha until someone correctly guesses their identity. The Newfoundland tradition (also known as mummering or mumming) is passed down from England and Ireland, with the earliest record dating to 1819.

For a young Ray Guy, the jannies were terrifying. In the Nov/Dec 1993 issue of Canadian Geographic, the Newfoundland journalist and humourist wrote an essay about his childhood in the outport community of Arnold’s Cove, and about that special time of year when jannies came to play. [Read the full story here]

“On Boxing Day after supper at about eight there would come a heavy rapping at the door,” wrote Guy. “Nobody else ever knocked, they just stamped snow off their bots in the porch in winter or cleared their throats in the summer. Nobody ever knocked except strangers… and jannies!”

Guy goes on to describe the group of bundled jannies, which could show up on your doorstep any night between December 26 and Old Christmas Day on January 6.

“They had grotesque humps on their backs or obscenely protruding bellies, sometimes both at once. Their faces were mummified with scraps of old lace curtains or masked black with cardboard that had torn-out holes for eyes. They stank, they reeked.

A raw sheepskin hung over this one’s deformed back, cow’s horns attached to a piece of bloody skull were lashed to that one’s head. Another wore a jouncing girdle of fox pelts, two or three were in oilskins turned inside out, putrid with bilge water and week-old fish.”

Despite the fact that fewer than 200 people lived in Arnold’s Cove, Guy says the jannies’ identities were rarely guessed. Now wonder the writer, eight years old in the narrative, was so afraid.

However, the mummering tradition, once just something to be tolerated because it always had been, eventually became rebranded as a hallmark of Newfoundland culture. By the time Guy was fully grown and living in the bustling metropolis of St. John’s, jannies had gone from being an embarrassing holdover from the past to symbolizing a proud piece of folklore and heritage.

Today, over two decades since Guy published his piece in Canadian Geographic,
Newfoundland and Labrador celebrate an annual Mummers Festival, helping to further revitalize interest in the province’s tradition.

Guy’s charming story is illustrated by Mary West Pratt, one of Canada’s most important realist painters.

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