Do you celebrate the Christmas season with costumed home invasions? Multi-day visiting marathons? Do you know the difference between regular ol’ Christmas Day and Old Christmas Day?
Do you leave Purity syrup (watered down, of course) out for Santa instead of milk?
If you said yes to any of these, you’re probably from Newfoundland and Labrador—an area of Canada that has its very own collection of unique Christmas traditions. Here are some of the most interesting.
Also known as Tipp’s Eve (and, possibly more accurately, Tipsy Eve), this is the unofficial start to the Christmas season. Originating on the South Shore of Newfoundland and now recognized in other parts of the province, Tibb’s Eve happens on the night of December 23, and is widely interpreted to be the time when one can start indulging in Christmas cheer of the alcoholic variety. The name is thought to originate not from the slurring of the word “tipsy,” but from an old slang word for a loose-moraled woman, and celebrating the feast of “St. Tibb” was an excuse to drink before the season of Advent was officially over on Christmas Day.
In Labrador, the influence of Moravian and other European immigrants is still evident as the Christmas season begins in Advent, the four-week liturgical period before Christmas. Similar to how children celebrate St. Nicholas Day (December 6) with stockings and presents, children in Labrador hang Advent stockings and decorate small Advent trees.
Possibly the best-known Newfoundland Christmas tradition, mummering happens from St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) through the 12 days of the Christmas season until Epiphany. Also called jannies, fools, oonchicks or darbies, mummers disguise themselves with masks, humps, costumes, and false voices, then travel from house to house, singing songs and dancing when invited in. Occupants of the house must try and guess the mummers’ identities, after which food and drinks are shared, and the mummers move on to the next house. In some communities, if folks can’t identify the mummers, they have to join the group. Mummering is based on ancient traditions of disguising and visiting during the Christmas season, while traditional mummers’ plays and characters are about 200 years old, traveling from Britain to Newfoundland.
Old Christmas Day
January 6—the Feast of the Epiphany, and the liturgical end of the Christmas season—is also known as Old Christmas Day in many parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. The name has its origins in England’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, which dropped 12 days from the old calendar and resulted in Christmas being celebrated December 25, rather than January 6. In some parts of Newfoundland, the Christmas season actually ends 12 days after Old Christmas Day, which makes for a season with a lot of mummering.
Doing the Wren
A variation on the mummering tradition, visitors—often young boys—in some parts of Newfoundland visit from house to house carrying a small effigy of a wren dangling from a stick, reciting verses extolling the wren as The King of Birds for each house they visit. This is based on an Irish and English tradition called wrenning, where a wren was ceremonially stoned to death on December 26, marking the martyrdom of St. Stephen, after which boys would wander from house to house asking for money to give the bird a good burial.
In northern Labrador, Epiphany Night (January 6) or Old Christmas Day is also known as Nalajuit Night. On this night teenagers and adults dress up in costumes and creepy masks and, waving a stick or other weapon, chase young children through the streets—all in fun, of course. According to tradition, if a child was caught by a Nalujuk, he or she had to sing a song in Inuktitut. If they sang the right song, they were rewarded with candy or a treat.
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