The South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha is home to an interesting mumming and masking custom that takes place on Old Year's Night. The men disguise themselves as completely as possible, even covering their hands and changing the way they walk so that no one can guess who they are. In a community of only 260 people or so, that is quite some achievement. They go round the island's village making noise and good natured mischief, and receive hospitality in return, including a special reception held by the Administrator.
The mummers go by the name of 'Okalolies', a unique name whose origins are unclear. The dialectologist Daniel Schreier tentatively suggested that it could have come from South Africa, but this requires further investigation. Another possibility is that it could have come from Scotland. A very similar guising custom takes place in the Hebrides on New Year's Eve, which is known as Oidhche Chullaig or Oidhche Challain in Gaelic (Oidhche Choille in Irish). The pronunciation of these names is not too disimilar to 'Okalolie'. Both the name and the custom could have been carried to the island from Scotland by founding settler William Glass. However, this also needs further investigation, because Glass was a lowland Scot from Kelso and unlikely to have spoken any Gaelic, although the name could perhaps have been handed down in his family. On the other hand, we do know that Kelso also had New Year guisers (Hayward, 1992).
The Tristan da Cunha Post Office is honouring the Okalolies with a special £1.60 stamp, issued on the 28th September 2009 as part of a set four celebrating the island's traditions. The design (above) is a collage of images of individual guisers from photographs taken by Janice Hentley, wife of the former Adminstrator Mike Hentley. The masks may be modern (the Okalolies certainly keep up with the times) but the tradition has a long well attested history.
The traditions on the other three stamps in the set show Sheep Sheering (25p), Ratting Day (35p), and Longboats to Nightingale (70p). For full details and ordering information see the Tristan da Cunha Post Office's webpage.
More of Janice Hentley's photographs of the Okalolies can be seen on the Folk Play Research website.