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Inuit tradition going strong
BY FLOYD SPRACKLIN
SPECIAL TO THE LABRADORIAN
Early in the evening of Jan. 5, Inuit children in Hopedale reposition their Christmas stockings long since void of their Christmas morning treats. All is ready in anticipation that their exemplary behaviour of the past year will once again reward them with treats.
Unlike the Christmas lyrics, “He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake, He knows if you've been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake,” Inuit children must maintain their streak of good behavior way beyond Santa’s arrival. Or else…. the Nalujuks will fill their waiting stockings not with goodies but with sticks, rocks, and other useless items. Therefore, the children dare not incur the wrath of the Nalujuks.
Nalujuk Night 2018 did not happen for me after I had heard about the strange goings on and how I would be chased by Nalujuks brandishing sticks if I ventured out. So I hunkered down in my house with the lights turned off to pretend it wasn’t happening. As it turns out, I missed the experience of a lifetime.
This year would be different. After being asked by The Labradorian to write about Nalujuk Night, I decided it was time I overcome my fears.
So, with resident, Ryan Flowers, I brave the 25 below temperatures with 50 kilometre/per hour winds, hop onto his snowmobile, and take off in search of the Nalujuks for my story. I must have looked the sight with a black balaclava covering all but my eyes and a fur hat pulled tightly under my chin. Minus the stick, I could easily have been mistaken for a Nalujuk myself.
It didn’t take long to find a group of five strange souls wandering across the bay ice and heading menacingly straight for us. As they near us, I break out into my own rough version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Next thing I see is an outstretched sealskin gloved hand for me to shake. Then it reaches into a bag and passes me some sweet treats. I ask if we can take some photos, and the entire group immediately gathers together, kneels down on the ice, and assumes a pose. As quick as that, they are off.
Ryan and I repack our camera gear, start up the snowmobile, and drive off around Hopedale in search of more Nalujuks. They are everywhere.
It is a wild night of fun and mayhem as the Nalujuks hit every nook and cranny in Hopedale. Children run frantically from the strangely dressed creatures that roam the town every year on Jan. 6 while snowmobiles drive around for a look at and quick photos of the rare and fanciful Nalujuks. Some children and adults receive a few treats while others are chased by the muted stick-wielding Nalujuks. The town is alive with wonderment at the undying tradition that crystallizes Hopedale and the other Labrador Inuit communities into such unique places. But this year, it isn’t my fear of the Nalujuks that drives me back indoors — it’s the fierce cold.
At first glance, one would think Mummers and Nalujuks are one and the same. Not so. Although both traditions occur during the Christmas season and involve dressing up to hide one’s identity, the similarities end there.
Mummering is actually an old English and Irish custom that resurfaced and was first recorded on the Island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador around the early 1800’s. Medieval mummers were at one time amateur actors who performed for various functions throughout the year including harvest time and Christmas.
Mummering usually commences on Boxing Day, the Feast of St. Stephen, and lasts until the twelfth day of Christmas, Old Christmas Day. Newfoundland mummering involves dressing in outlandish costumes and performing for anyone who will listen after being invited into homes. This is now more of an outport tradition because of the invasiveness of this custom.
Mummers garb up in everything from Granny’s old bra usually worn over the outside of clothing, lacy slips, rubber boots with perhaps a pair of vamps pulled over them, and homemade and store-bought masks. If you can dream it up, all is fair game in the costuming department.
Mummers are treated to libations and food as thank-you gestures for their gifted surreptitious performances. However, once the secret identity of the masked ones is guessed, they must remove their disguise for all to see. However, the longer the guessing game, the more food and drink, so lots of time and energy go into having the perfect disguise.
While mummering is both a time of entertainment and stress relief from whatever are the prevailing conditions, the Nalujuks appears to be primarily a teaching opportunity evolved from their Moravian roots.
Nalujuk Night occurs in Inuit communities throughout Labrador on Old Christmas Day, Jan. 6. Like other Inuit communities on Nalujuk Night, Hopedale was alive with frenetic Nalujuks running and teasing children and adults alike only to be appeased once you sang them a song in Inuktitut or any other language. Christmas carols and songs seem to pop up regularly.
The Nalujuit or Nalujuks, a hodgepodge of eerie-looking characters, have finally made their annual return trek. Nalujuks are boogey-man characters that visit the shores of Labrador from the far off Eastern ice and cold Atlantic waters, the realm of Sedna. They playfully taunt the children while teaching them lessons of good behavior.
The Moravian Missions of Nain, Makkovik, and Hopedale seem to have influenced the manner in which these Nalujuks masked and dressed themselves in animal furs of all kinds, especially with the moralistic teaching that accompanies the tradition.
Now, hundreds of years later these Nalujuks still return with gnarled spruce sticks in hand, dressed in their Inuit seal skin mukluks and gloves, and with their faces and bodies covered in furs. These unreal spectres are not unlike the boogey-men of cultures from all over the world. Whether they are wolves in sheep’s clothing or some other misshapen forms, their return the same time every year still instills a real fear in children as well as adults.
So, after these unearthly visitors have long gone, the children will presumably remain nice and not naughty because the Nalujuks will definitely be back next year.