06 February 2017

Cultural Replicant Fade #nlpoli

The people of Gambo held their first mummers' parade the December before last.

The Gander Beacon,  the weekly newspaper that covers events in Gambo, featured some pictures of the parade and a write-up on it.  The town's recreation director organised the event and the handful of people who took part in the parade wound up at the local senior citizens home.

Gambo.  First mummers' parade, ever, in 2015.

Wonderful stuff, but awfully queer given that mummering or jannying is an incredibly old tradition among Europeans in Newfoundland and Labrador that only died down in the second half of the last century. People did all sorts of things and called it mummering.  In the version most would know, people would dress up in various costumes and go door-to-door in the community.  More often than not, they'd be invited in for some refreshments in exchange for music and dancing and the chance to try and guess the identity of the costumed revellers.

People settled in Gambo about 1857.  David Smallwood,  grandfather of the former premier, set up a lumbering business and sawmill at the southwestern end of Bonavista Bay around 1860.  In other words, Gambo is a place where mummering ought to be well-known.
And indeed mummering itself isn't new to Gambo, of course.  You can even find a  youtube video of folks jannying in someones house in 2011.  If you dug around you will likely find accounts of mummering or jannying in that part of Bonavista Bay and even in Gambo itself as far back as you can go in the town's history.  That would make perfect sense.

What doesn't makes sense is that some folks in the community decided to organise a mummer's parade in 2015.  Dozens of academics from Britain and the United States came to the new Memorial University starting in the 1950s. They fanned out across the island portion of the province to live among and study the locals and to document everything from their language to the way they fished. Mummering was one of the first local customs that caught their attention.

The academics made a record of what they saw and what people told them. Over the years,  the professors debated what role jannying played in sustaining the relationships in the community. Whatever purpose it served,  mummering died out slowly as people had other forms of entertainment and roads and cars allowed them to travel to meet relatives during the holidays. The impetus for mummering wasn't there any longer.

Some people continued the traditional way but the modern versions of mummering are almost totally inventions by people with little, if any, personal experience of the tradition.  In St. John's,  some folks created an annual series of events celebrating mummers.  The main attraction is a parade in the downtown part of the city.  The parade and the associated festival dates from 2009 according to the website of the Mummer's Festival.  The 2016 edition lasted from November 26 until December 14 with the parade taking place on December 10.

A 2011 account in the Newfoundland Quarterly called the parade and the modern practice of mummering as a case of reinventing and reviving a cultural tradition.  But really, the phenomenon in St. John's is the appropriation by middle class urbanites of an artifact of a rural, working class culture for their own ends. It isn't unusual to see people with no historic or familial ties to Newfoundland participating in the St. John's festival.

The people behind the parade even have an elaborate rationalisation for their actions, as you can see in that NQ piece. They claim the mantle of saviour with talk about "preserving" what they call "intangible cultural heritage." Except at one point, the author notes that the parade in St. John's never existed before.  No mention of the contradiction.

How do you preserve something that never existed?  Well, you can't obviously.  The mummer's parade is a fabrication, a construction, an interpretation manufactured not out of the world and the beliefs of the people who used to practice mummering but of someone else. Almost as if they are aware of the philosophical problem with what they are doing the self-appointed preservers distinguish what to their minds is the virtue of their fabrication from the work of some other people who are decidedly less virtuous.  These are the folks who would take someone else's culture and turn into something for their own purposes. The bad people turn culture into something to package up and sell.  There is a made up word for that:  commodification.

In a practical sense, the people who organise the festival have turned an organic and living aspect of a culture into something that they fit within their framework of words and categories. The people who practiced mummering didn't think much about what they were doing.  They just knew it was something worthwhile as entertainment,  as a way of reinforcing ties among friends and family, as something they had to do to go along with the crowd, as whatever they each felt mummering did.

Academics - people of another world - came and studied the practice in Newfoundland as people experienced in their everyday lives.  That's one thing. Then people stopped mummering and that was the end of it.  Except that some other people in a completely different social, political, and cultural context used the descriptions of the early practice to manufacture something of their own.  They gave it the same name.  Claimed it was authentic, that the invented practice was indisputably connected to the dead original.

Except it isn't, of course.  The mummers' parade is very much the commodification of a social phenomenon.  In that sense it is akin to the mardi gras held in the bar district in St. John's each year.  People get dressed up in costumes,  compete for prizes, and do pretty much everything one would see in New Orleans on the Tuesday before Good Friday each year.  The St. John's mardi gras happens in October, though,  as just like the modern practice of mummering doesn't start on Boxing Day and carry on until the celebration of Epiphany on January 6.  The dates have been changed for commercial reasons,  thereby affirming the transmogrification of a living cultural practice into a golem.

Newfoundland isn't alone in this phenomenon.  Regular readers will know about the Krampus,  the spirit that lives in Alpine European folklore as the antithesis of Saint Nicholas.  While jolly old Saint Nick arrived on his feast day of December 6 to reward the good,  Krampus - a half-human, half-goat demon  - arrived in all his Old Nick horror to punish the wicked on December 5.  These days,  Krampus has lost his  fearsome character, except in a batch of American movies.  Krampus has his own festivals held in towns in Austria and southern Germany.  There are parades in which young men display the elaborate Krampus costumes they have made and compete to win prizes for the best creativity and handiwork.

What happened in Gambo, though is something else. There we have the people who mostly abandoned mummering in their own culture.  When they went looking about for an expression of their community and its connection to the past they looked not to themselves but to the St. John's invention as the thing to emulate. They copied someone else's invention. What they copied, though, does not really have the expression of intimacy inherent in any of the descriptions you will have of mummering in any of the academic literature.  It certainly lacks authenticity by any but the invented academic meaning given to that word by folks who have themselves become involved in making mummering into something different.

As Diane Tye put it in her essay "At home and away",  mummering has become a successful symbol for Newfoundland culture "due, in no small measure, to its appeal to the many Newfoundlanders living away from home."  In the midst of the new and the different, people look for any connection to what they had left behind.  This is an idea we have seen since the 1960s and the proliferation of "newfie" clubs  and "newfie" joke books and the like.  

Now look at Gambo, again. There's something much deeper in that, some meaning that we should take note of.  Rural Newfoundland is in the grips of a radical, dramatic, and profound transformation. For decades, we have had plenty of people talking about the past. There's been lots of talk about resisting the transformation in one way or another. The current administration's plan is essentially the same as the plan from the crowd before them and the crowd before that.  A lot of government money has gone in the past couple of decades to resist the changes, too.  That's part of the reason why the government is in a financial jam, yet again.

The changes are happening regardless.   But have we now reached a point in our history where people in rural Newfoundland are casting about for some touchstones as their relatives did a half century before?  The difference would be that the expatriates looked to the land they came from to find that reference point.  Now the people in the place the ex-pats looked to  - people in rural Newfoundland - are themselves casting about for meaning and belonging and connection and grab onto someone else's fictitious version of the rural Newfoundland past and its culture.

That cannot be healthy.  That cannot be good.