Thursday, December 3, 2009

Newfoundland, mumming, cross-dressing, and Shakespeare

Via Reason, a particularly odd article on the old European roots of "mumming and disguising" – something that will sound familiar to Philadelphians, who hold the Mummers Day Parade in early January. It's about some holiday rituals practiced by Newfoundlanders fishermen as late as the 1960s, who were supposedly so isolated that they persisted in these odd practices longer than any Europeans. It's a long article, but here are some excerpts:

A party of mummers would gather in someone house, gear up, and set off for whatever house was closest that they figured would let them in. Once in, the group would entertain their uncomfortable hosts by singing, telling stories and dancing, in other words, each member doing some routine, speaking and singing in a peculiar but traditional manner that disguised their voices. As soon as the hosts recognized one of them, off would come the mask and the gloves and the monster would metamorphose into a relative or neighbor. As soon as everyone’s identity was guessed, on went the disguises again and they were off to the next house. This was through piles of snow, of course, so far north, so they were bundled up against the cold as well. Needless to say, a great deal of alcohol was consumed in the process, along with various homemade holidays treats.

That men generally dressed as women and vice versa probably says something about the emotional satisfactions of the tradition as a factor apart from the need for total disguise. It may also suggest that the gender-bending in Shakespeare’s holiday plays have a broader basis in tradition than modern critics, fond of ascribing it to various psycho-sexual factors, are willing to acknowledge.

Apparently the revelers had an idea that what they were doing was a bit odd:

The anthropologists said that it was very difficult to get the people to talk about their holiday practises. They were shy about talking to strangers about anything, and particularly shy about this tradition. The scientists got the feeling that they weren’t being told everything. This for at least two reasons. First, such holiday practises were dangerous. Shameful things could happen during this period when everything was turned upside down. It was not only a time of making merry, it was potentially a time of reprisal, of setting things straight, of settling old scores. There was a lot of drinking. Things could get rough.

And then here's the sociological money shot:

Several things came clear from this that were not discussed by any of the researchers. First, it is clear to me that these people who lived so close to each other year in, year out, whose families all knew each other intimately, and knew everything there was to know about each other’s family histories, some of it no doubt shameful or embarrassing, needed a break from being themselves. They desperately needed a few hours of being with people without the burden of their ordinary identities.

This is not something that would be immediately understood today. If anything, people today, city-dwellers in particular, tend to suffer from the opposite problem, from being too unknown, too anonymous. Today, if we should feel the need to shuffle off our identities for a time, we can go downtown or to the mall or take a drive to another town or city. If we live in the country, we can go to the city, or we can fly off to some distant beach resort. But for people living in small, isolated, unchanging communities for their entire lives, the ritual may have been a psychological necessity.

There's tons more, including a bunch of links to Shakespeare and other bits of Elizabethan culture.

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