My father was a man’s man, a fisherman by trade and a great hunter by reputation. He spent weeks at sea setting and hauling trawl 18 hours a day, risking his life beside a gang of buddies. Sometimes he’d bring home a cheque so fat, it felt almost illicit, but most of the time he came home with little or nothing at all. Every fall, he spent hunting season in the woods with my uncles and friends, tracking down deer and drinking. He owned two guns for every prey, and his kills got us through winter.
One of the most gregarious and popular men in town, my father—his knuckles tattooed with the letters L-O-V-E and his biceps and forearms with snakes and anchors—worked hard, played hard and drank hard.
My mother was a woman’s woman, a housewife by trade and a loyal friend and mother by reputation. For the first years of my life, she had no running water. We used the outhouse and bathed at the kitchen sink in water heated on the woodstove. She washed clothes in a ringer washer and dried them into frozen boards on the clothesline out back. Her friends were always coming around, sharing a cigarette and gossip over tea.
She and my father hosted card parties and hung out to smoke and drink with their friends. Both my sister and I did well in school, in large part because of my mother. Unlike my father, who dropped out early, she took school seriously and insisted we do well.
So, what were my parents doing at Christmas, running around the neighbourhood in each other’s clothes?
The memory of my father dressed in my mother’s clothes and my mother dressed in my father’s clothes — both of them with a flash on from the rum they’d been drinking—struck me in adulthood as curiously out of place. It didn’t seem to fit with our hardscrabble life or even with their personalities. We didn’t go to church, but as far as I knew, it had nothing to do with any strange religious rites.
That’s why I got to wondering, well, what’s this all about and did other people do it and where did it come from? Why would a father like that put on a woman’s dress? Why would my mother get into dad’s workpants and doeskin shirt and rubber boots? They’d stuff their clothes with cushions from the couch and wear underwear over the whole getup. They’d hide their faces by pulling a pillowcase with eyeholes over their heads. They might even wear boots on their hands or mittens on their feet.
Sandying. That’s what they called it when they got dressed up and went out at Christmas like that, but most people would call what my parents did “mummering.” The custom goes by various names around Atlantic Canada: Santa-ing, Santa Clausing, Kris Krinkling, jannying, belsnicking. While “belsnicking” arrived with German immigrants, most of the other names refer to a custom that has its roots in Medieval England.
Some folklorists consider sandying and all its variations a surviving pagan custom, but others believe it has no religious connections at all. It’s just something people did for centuries. One thing for sure, my parents had no idea why they went sandying except that it was a fun thing you did at Christmas.
This is how it would go. They’d manage to get themselves up to the kitchen door of a neighbour’s house without too much racket. They’d knock. Nobody knocked at doors in those days, but my mom and dad knocked. The whole point was to stump the hosts… sort of. They would knock and stay mum when the neighbours opened the door and started guessing who they might be. If they guessed right, they’d invite Mom and Dad in for drinks and laughs. If they couldn’t guess, they’d invite Mom and Dad in for drinks and laughs anyway.
Once inside, I can only imagine what went on. Well, I can do better than imagine. I can make an educated guess because sandyers came to our house too on nights my mother and father stayed home. In would come the strangers who you knew very well were friends or family. Then “the foolishness,” as my grandfather called anything like this, would start. After taking a nip from a bottle, a visitor would grab my mother and dance around the kitchen or sit on my father’s lap and flirt with him until finally someone guessed right or tear off a pillowcase for the big reveal. Then they’d tell stories about the dressing up and the visits to other houses and drink some more. Sometimes, they’d sing songs at the tops of their lungs.
I don’t go sandying. This was less than 40 years ago, but nobody I know goes sandying. Everything I know about it came from memories and talks with my mother. Nobody ever talked about it at school. It never appeared in books. Sandying seemed to exist nowhere but in my parents’ imaginations. It was as if they made the whole thing up. And yet there was something about it that seemed far bigger than them as if they had no control over what they were doing, as if it were instinctual or as we might say today, genetic.
Of course, it wasn’t genetic. It was cultural. And the culture of the world I live in now is not the world I grew up in. I get my water from a tap. I bath in the bathroom. I surf the internet and watch 500 channels of television. I don’t make my own entertainment as often as my parents did.
Some things haven’t changed, and you’d think there might yet be a place for sandying. There’s still all that lead up at Christmas followed by the long coast through New Years. Christmas is still the darkest time of the year.
The nights, even the holiday itself, are still too long to know what to do with. Sandying might still work as comic relief to the seriousness and soberness of the Christian holiday, to the burden we carry around in Christian cultures of the birth of Jesus and the eventual forgiveness of carnal sins like, well, drinking.
If I had to give one reason why I don’t go sandying like my parents did, I’d blame the news. Children are abducted and murdered, gangs catch bystanders in their crossfire, innocent people are blown up and it’s as if it’s happening in our own towns. Who’s going to welcome a hooded and drunken stranger into their house at Christmas these days? We’ve circled the wagons, locked the doors and set the new alarm system. We’re as likely to call 9-1-1 as open the door.
Whatever the reasons for its longevity and recent extinction, I miss sandying—or mummering or belsnicking—even though I’ve never tried it myself. I miss the revelry, the mystery and the irreverent and celebratory edge. I’m nostalgic for such a strong expression of trust, hospitality and generosity in a community that seemed much closer when I was a boy than it does now.
I miss my parents dressed in each others clothes stuffed with pillows, acting like I’d never seen. I miss the relief sandying brought to the longest nights of the year and the gravity of the season. Above all, I miss the tomfoolery and the way sandying could turn Christmas inside out. I miss the silliness that seemed to fit Christmas like a hand in a glove… or is that a mitten on a foot.
Note: “mumming” is the standard term, while “mummering” is the Newfoundland vernacular, which seems more appropriate to use in this case.
Masked mummer entertaining children © Linda Ross
Masked mummers at Christmas party © Linda Ross
Mummers around a bonfire © Linda Ross