Allison's Book Bag

The Mummer’s Song by Bud Davidge

Posted on: July 24, 2013

Cover of "The Mummer's Song"

Cover of The Mummer’s Song

The Mummer’s Song was one of the first Newfoundland picture books I bought. It contains the words to a popular song that Bud Davidge, of the group Simani, wrote in 1973 as a tribute to a centuries-old custom which had started to disappear from the island. The song has since fostered a revival of mummering, a house-visiting Christmas tradition. Although I myself have never experienced this custom, I have remained fascinated with it ever since learning about it as part of my high school Newfoundland culture class and felt excited to purchase a book about it.

What can one learn about this annual event from The Mummer’s Song? The text makes clear that identities of mummers is initially unknown because they might cross-dress and wear outlandish outfits: “Humps on their backs and mitts on their feet.” If that’s not weird enough: “With his underwear stuffed and his trapdoor undone. Is his wearing his mother’s big forty-two bra?” If mummers are invited into a house, it’s customary for the host to offer them refreshments and snacks. That might mean home brew or it might mean syrup, the latter being explained as a “sugary drink mixed with water”. (My husband and I actually mix it with other juices.) It’s also customary for the mummers to provide entertainment in the form of dance. They start by tapping their feet, but then can start “planking it down” or dancing so wild one might need to watch the lamps and the furniture.

The illustrations in The Mummer’s Song were created by Canadian artist Ian Wallace and are priceless. On the first page, Wallace provides a panel of Granny knitting in her chair, bemoaning that “Christmas is not like it was.” He follows this image up with a lavish blue-tinged spread of her grandchildren peeking out the window, spying mummers. Subsequent pages alternate between panels and spreads, some showing the mummers with their fiddlers doing  jigs and others showing the family laughing, playing piano, and even joining in the dance. Halloween costumes couldn’t begin to compete with mummer attire, which includes pots and pans on the head, boots and mismatched mittens on the hands, fish scales and bobbers in the clothes, and sweaters and trousers that could win awards for their ugliness.

Special features in The Mummer’s Song include an Afterword that explains how “Christmas in rural Newfoundland can be a Christmas like no other”. It describes the practice of mummering and its history. For example, this house-visiting tradition has been part of the island’s culture since the early 1800’s, when settlers brought with them many of their folk traditions from England and Ireland. The Afterword also describes the demise of mummering and its subsequent revival thanks to Budridge’s song, for which the musical score appears on the last page. Some editions, alas not mine, also included an audio CD of the song.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

For those of you who are curious, here’s a YouTube version of the song, taken from a “Land and Sea” Christmas episode. Copyright CBC St. John’s (CBNT), 1986.

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