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How Mummers do it in Canada

Yo, Philly Mummers: You've got competition.  In Newfoundland, Canada, of all places.

Turns out that communities on that cold Atlantic isle have their own version of the Mummers parade — and it was once banned.  But unlike Philadelphia's New Year's Day extravaganza, the revived Canadian parade is only part of a two-week-long "participant-focused, community-based festival" that includes workshops, forums, speakers, and educational programs.

If that sounds boring, just keep reading.

In smaller communities, Canadian Mummery usually consists of dressing up in costumes and visiting friends' homes during the holidays, and persuading them to throw a little party. There are no troupes, groups, or bands. The 1,000-person parade, which takes place in the capital of St. John's, is almost secondary. It is a bit more Halloween than New Orleans in character.

About 12 communities in Newfoundland now have some kind of Mummer walk, said Ryan Davis, director of the St. John's festival.

"Our version of Mummery goes back to the pre-1800s here," Davis said. It originated in England and Ireland, and was banned for over a century after the 1860s, when the practice had grown a bit more violent and pirates got involved, he said.

Back then, the hobby horse — a character devised as mischievous but more often leaning toward the criminal — would visit homes and cause trouble.

Think of it as a creepy horse puppet, said Davis.

The costume was originally made of dried animal skulls, and the character would yank curtains off windows, pull tablecloths down, and "pee" on the floor with a water bottle.

"People got out of hand and houses burned down because of Mummers, I'm sure," he said. The modern — and tamer — version of the hobby horse is made in workshops, with cardboard and duct tape.

And rather than focusing on flash and elaborate themes, Newfoundland Mummers' costumes are more like disguises, meant to make your host guess who you are, Davis said. Costumes are largely homemade, with underwear on the outside, boxes on heads, funky skirts, and a lot of cross-dressing.

There is some entertainment in the form of jokes, step dancing, and occasional music.

"The nice thing about Mummering is that you don't have to have any great talent," Davis said. "People will perform even if they are not good at it."

In Newfoundland, parades tend to happen in the larger communities and the home-visit part of the tradition in smaller ones, where everyone knows their neighbors.

"They don't have to worry about that whole stranger thing," he said.

Ryan encouraged Philadelphia Mummers to visit St. John's and even extended an invitation to join in the parade.

So, what about it, Philly?