“All the Mummers ‘Lowed In!” – Newfoundland Tourism & Heritage Commodification
by: Rebecca Ford
As a Newfoundlander and someone who worked on the front line of the Newfoundland and Labrador’s (NL) tourism industry, I have seen firsthand how NL’s culture is regarded by others. Like most tourist destinations, NL uses its past as a tool in the present, and namely through the commodification of its heritage – when “tourism turns culture into a commodity, packaged and sold to tourists, [it results] in a loss of authenticity” (Cole, 2007).
The province has indeed pivoted their traditions to meet the needs of the many tourists, which has been supported by the government as a means of income. According to the NL Provincial Government, tourism continues to be a major “economic driver” and, in pre-pandemic years, the tourism industry generated “approximately $1.14 billion in spending annually with almost 20,000 jobs in tourism industries and 2,800 businesses, representing nine per cent of all jobs in the province.” Major investment in the tourism industry by the government includes award-winning tourism commercials (though they do tend to market Newfoundland as a place frozen in time) and major initiatives like ‘Come Home Year 2022’.
Figure 1: Frame from NL tourism commercial. Source.
While the investment in and preservation of culture is positive in and of itself, this unfortunately can lead to prioritizing revenue generation and de-valuing the meaning, authenticity, and overall quality of artifacts and rituals. I believe NL has taken their unspoken commodification of heritage to another level. So, let’s look at some examples where this commodification is most clear.
The Accent & Popular Sayings
Newfoundlanders are well-known for their unique accent (and NL actually has the most dialects per capita in the world!). Thus, this accent is expected by tourists who arrive on the island. Even I (with a comparably non-heavy accent) had found myself “turning on the accent” a little more when dealing with tourists who comment about how much they liked it. This is furthered by the ever popular NL sayings. While I have never in my life genuinely said, “deed I is, me ol' cock - and long may yer big jib draw!”, I have definitely been asked to say (read: perform) these sayings by tourists.
Figure 2: NL Sayings License Plate Frame. Source.
As well, NL sayings can be found on just about any kind of product you can imagine (saltshakers, t-shirts, coasters, etc.). And while I don’t tend to say most of the sayings, it is a weird feeling when something I do say often (like “yes b’y”) ends up on somebody’s oven mitts they’re buying...
Figure 3: NL Sayings Oven Mitt. Source.
The Screech-In Ceremony
This welcoming ceremony for visitors is supposed to make the participant an honorary Newfoundlander and is traditionally performed personally by your host. It typically involves taking a shot of Screech Rum (which unsurprisingly the NL Liquor Corporation popularized in the 1990s as a promotional tool), reciting some — admittedly odd — lines, wearing a Sou’wester, and kissing a cod fish. However, this ritual often comes in many shapes and sizes, as whoever is screeching you in tends to give it their own spin.
We can see this ritual commodified by the fact that Screech-In Certificates (which were never originally a thing) are sold en-masse, you can pay to get Screeched-In at certain special places by professionals, and that they now use stuffed cods for the tourists (because of, well, obvious reasons). This well-known ceremony that intended on personally welcoming mainlanders to the island, has now essentially become a vacation box-tick. And you can get it done at essentially any bar on George Street (a magical place that gives NL its record of most bars per capita in Canada), where they often rush groups through unenthusiastically like going through the motions of an assembly line.
Figure 4: Portion of advertisement for Trapper John's Museum N' Pub, boasting “over 100,000 Screeched-In.” Source.
Mummering is a 200-year-old tradition where a group of people disguise themselves and visit homes within their community during the twelve days of Christmas. They would show up, say “Any Mummers ‘Lowed in?” (like the song I’ll never get out of my head), and dance and drink the night away, while the homeowners guessed who they were. It originally took place in mostly very rural communities (partly because it was prohibited in 1861 because of a mummers-related murder – eek!), but in the 1980s made a comeback, with the above mentioned song, and went through a resurgence which became an idealized conceptualization of the tradition.
Nowadays, this community tradition has become a year-round symbol for NL which has been commercialized to incredible extents. I am not exaggerating when I say that you can get mummers-themed clothing, figurines, snow globes, puzzles, kitchenware, pillows, and oh so much more. Not only can you get this type of merchandise anywhere Downtown (the tourism core), but you can also get it at places like Walmart; big production companies have clearly recognized the opportunity and have taken up the production of significantly cheaper and mass-produced versions of the handmade trinkets. From my own personal experiences, this “packaging” of NL culture into little knick-knacks is all too clear. I have sold products to tourists with mummers on them who didn’t even know what mummers were – they just “thought they were cute.”
Figure 5: Mummers Face Mask. Source, Mummers Nightlight. Source, Mummers Christmas Ornament. Source.
Now don’t get me wrong – Newfoundland is my home, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t currently have a mummers magnet on my fridge. But that is the crux of it all: is the commodification of culture that bad if Newfoundlanders don’t really seem to mind, and even actively benefit from and participate in it? While I don’t have a yes or no answer, I don’t know of a single Newfoundlander who doesn’t own a “souvenir” from their own province and consume their own tourist culture. Usually, the commodification of culture makes it have less meaning for the residents. But in this rare circumstance, as it dramatically supports the economy and creates jobs, most Newfoundlanders are the first to welcome all tourists in and continue to be proud of their culture, even if it has become a little commodified.
The Commodification of Rural Heritage: Creative Destruction in Newfoundland and Labrador, thesis by Claire Sullivan, University of Waterloo; https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/5138/Sullivan_Claire.pdf?sequence=1.
Cole, S. (2007) Beyond Authenticity and Commodification. Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 34(4), pp. 943-960.