Masks, mops and “ugly sticks”—a look at Newfoundland’s holiday tradition of mummering

Photographer Adam Coish grew up mummering in Labrador City. For most Canadians, his shots offer a window into another world.

Every year around Christmas, Canadians living in Newfoundland and Labrador participate in the costumed cultural practice of mummering. The Newfoundland version of the tradition, which has been around for roughly 200 years,  consists of groups of friends disguising themselves in outlandish costumes made from a hodgepodge of household items. Once dressed up, the mummers visit the homes of five or six friends—completely unannounced—and ask: “Any mummers ‘lowed in?” Each household must then guess who’s hiding underneath the masks, lampshades, doilies and more—and it’s often harder than it sounds. In true Newfoundland fashion, there is also plenty of drinking and dancing. 

Photographer Adam Coish, who grew up in Labrador City, remembers the tradition fondly. “I had mummers visit our house many times in my childhood,” he says. “It was just one of the most incredibly captivating and exciting hours of my Christmas.” Coish, 36, has lived in Toronto since he was 18, but he says he’s wanted to capture the spirit of mummering in photos for years. When he visited St. John’s last July to attend his grandmother’s funeral, he decided it was time. “I knew if I didn’t do it then, it could be years before I finally got around to it,” says Coish. “I didn’t care that it wasn’t the right time of year.”

With the help of Lynn McShane, the executive director of the Mummers Festival, Coish found local mummering enthusiasts willing to get dressed up in the middle of the summer. More than anything, Coish hopes that his photo series will show the rest of Canada that Newfoundlanders are experts at having a good-old time, no matter the season. Here, he shares the stories behind the mummers and his photography: 

“Helen Mackey was the very first person I photographed in this whole series. She’s been mummering since she was 15 or 16. Her disguise is always an old man. She got different parts of her costume from her dad, her sister’s husband and her brother-in-law—her whole outfit has been passed down to her from different people in her life. Every article of clothing has some meaning behind it, which I thought was a really beautiful thing.”

“Helen came in with her friend Sharon Hynes. You could just tell that mummering was a huge part of their lives. There was a show going on right next door to where we were shooting: a bunch of teenage girls were doing Irish step-dancing. When Helen heard that, she was like, ‘We should go and surprise them! No one’s expecting to see any mummers, right?’ She and Sharon completely crashed the party, right in the middle of the girls’ dance.”

“Sharon is so full of life—laughing constantly and willing to be goofy for the camera. I always envision the colours of a mummer’s outfit to be a bit more subdued, like Helen’s, so I was really impressed with Sharon’s outfit. Apparently, she has a big ‘tickle trunk’—as she calls it—full of different outfits that she can use. She has a lot of friends who look through the trunk to find their own. No doubt the one she was wearing is just one of the many she has in there.”

“James Murphey is from my hometown, Labrador City. I grew up with her mom, Nicole. When Nicole saw that I was doing this project, she immediately reached out to me and said they wanted to be part of it. James, who is probably seven or eight, is obsessed with mummering. She really lives for it. Usually, you’d expect parents to be like, ‘Let’s go and do this for your grandparents.’ But, no, James wanted this. One of my favourite details about her is that she wears an oven mitt on her hand and her foot. That’s her little signature.” 

“This could be just another story of a creepy mask, but the most genuinely sweet woman is behind it. Jill Richards has been mummering for roughly 27 years. She plays the accordion, which I thought was amazing. When she goes mummering, people always make her break out the squeeze box and play a few tunes while they’re going from house to house. Jill’s been part of the parade, and sometimes she’ll go around mummering in different places, like retirement homes. She knows how much it makes people smile—that’s really why she does it.”

“Sharon Brophy lives on a street called Tunis Court, where a big group of neighbours go mummering together. She reached out to me and got her whole group involved. Sharon’s been doing mummering since she was four or five years old. Her go-to look has always been one-piece PJs, rubber boots, a bra on the outside and a lampshade—which, believe it or not, is a common style. People are so different with their mummering outfit on. It just lets them bring their walls down. That’s one of the beautiful things about the tradition: it allows you to be wholeheartedly yourself.”

“Susan and Paul are newbies: they’re actually from Whitby, Ontario. In 2017, they came to Newfoundland for a visit and just loved it. They closed their business, sold their house and moved here the following July. Sure enough, they soon learned about mummering through their friends on Tunis Court, the same street as Sharon Brophy. They only partook in the festivities for the first time last year, so they’re still relatively new. A couple that mummers together is a recipe for a long-lasting relationship.”

Tunis Court crew

“This crew got to know each other through mummering. They all got together and made their ‘ugly sticks’ as a group. People usually nail a bunch of bottle caps to it to give their stick a jingling sound. Then they’ll nail a rubber boot to the bottom and create a head—often with tin cans and some kind of mop for hair. The stick is almost like an extension of themselves; it gives people something to make music with when they’re all dancing. You don’t need a stick in order to be a mummer, but they’re very common. This group became even closer through mummering. It really brings people together.”

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