cheap jersey site A miscellany of mummers
The line was written just over 125 years ago. I found it in an article on mummers of the British Isles, or, as those players were also called long ago, “waits.”
I opened up my 1753 dictionary to help me. It defines “waits” (a plural noun) as “sort of watch a nights,” “a sort of musick, or musicians.” It also defines mummer as “a mute person in a masquerade.”
Memorial University professors Herbert Halpert and George Story in 1969 published “Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland.” I can’t find anything in it on being wakeful, or being a “watch a night,” so perhaps the English and Irish who decided to become Newfoundlanders left that behind in the Old Country. But in this book there are many delightful helpings served up from our traditions, and not only by Halpert and Story, but also by invited guests, like Melvin Firestone.
Firestone concentrated one of his research projects on the eastern side of the Great Northern Peninsula. In part, he says:
“When one dons the mummer’s disguise in the straits one is said to ‘janney up.’ There are ‘big janneys’ adults, and ‘little janneys’ children. There are fewer big janneys than little ones today.
“Janneys wear all sorts of garments anything outlandish that they feel will not be identified. People wrap themselves in quilts, drape themselves in tablecloths sometimes a sheet is hung around the body.”
Firestone reintroduces an ancient prop of the mummers/janneys: “There was, until recently a hobby horse or ‘Horsey chops’ a frightening mask in the shape of a horse’s head with a moveable jaw the jaws contain teeth of nails ”
Watch a night is curious, however. A “watch” was defined in bygone days as “a person appointed to keep watch a nights.” Christians have “watch night” services where they (presumably) await the arrival of the virgin birth. Mummers were known in Newfoundland (and in the United Kingdom) to go out at night, as opposed to the broad light of day, likely because night helped disguise them and night is a more exciting environment for gambols and tomfoolery. Disguises, of course, put people in character and smothered inhibitions.
While a researcher may well be able to tie together fragments of fact and thought and give us a cohesive story, to me, dabbling in seasonal literature at this time of year, with all the little mysteries and snippets of customs which we can recognize, is part of the yuletide mystique.
When you explore this sort of thing, especially at Christmas, you get a real sense of how closely we remain in character with our roots in the British Isles.
I met a middle aged St. John’s man a month ago and he told me that on one occasion when he operated a taxi here, he was called to pick up a Scottish gent at the Marriott on Duckworth Street. They weren’t driving long, nor chatting very long when the visitor asked my friend (who is from Newfoundland’s south coast), “Have you ever been in the West Country?”
To the Scot’s ears, his driver might just have arrived from that part of England from which so many Newfoundlanders sprang centuries ago.
Another item of note in the brief paper I referenced above is an obscure old poem, part of which goes,
“And oft, amid the gloom of midnight hours
Prevailed th’accustomed sounds of wakeful waits”
The paper reminds us that we can trace celebrations at this time of year back to pre Christian times. But for the western, or catholic church, the evidence of celebration begins around the year AD 300.
If we look back to the early 1800s, Christmas in the Old Country can sound like Christmas here, today:
“By some of our ancestors it was viewed in the double light of a religious and joyful season of festivities. The midnight preceding Christmas day every person went to mass and on Christmas day, three different masses were sung with much solemnity. Others celebrated it with great parade, splendour and conviviality. Business was superseded by merriment and hospitality”
And going even farther back, “the nobles and the barons encouraged and participated in the various sports: the industrious labourer’s cot and the residence of proud royalty, equally resounded with tumultuous joy.”
I have also read of the United Kingdom, “from Christmas day to Twelfth day there was a continuous run of entertainments. Not only did our ancestors make great rejoicings on, but before and after Christmas day.”
Same here in Newfoundland. And to ensure that they could join in the fun unencumbered by duties, men of the outports would work double duty in late fall to pile up enough firewood to last 12 days. Consider when the Puritans ruled our ancestors’ land. It wasn’t like when Arthur ruled.
My reference paper says: “in the year 1647 the Cromwell party ordered throughout the principal towns and cities of the country, by the mouth of the common crier that Christmas Day should no longer be observed it being a superstitious and hurtful custom; and that in place thereof, and the more effectually to work a change, markets should be held on the 25th day of December. This was attacking the people, especially the country folks, in their most sensitive part. It was hardly to be expected that they would quietly submit to such a bereavement; nor did they.”
One up for Great great (ad infinitum) Granddad.
To many people today, a most important way to celebrate is feasting. Its priority is a toss up with religious ceremony and gift giving. As to feasting, an old Yuletide verse from the period when homes had huge, open fireplaces with hooks for iron pots and spits for roasting, goes like this: