Published: 17-03-2010, 16:19


Mumming is a form of folk entertainment in which bands of masked and costumed merrymakers roam the streets singing, dancing, acting out stories, or simply engaging in horseplay. In past centuries people throughout EUROPE celebrated the CHRISTMAS SEASON by mumming or by hosting bands of mummers in their homes. In the United States today we allow children to practice a similar form of seasonal masquerading at Halloween.
Since mumming began as a folk rather than elite tradition, mum-mers usually wore simple, homemade costumes, often accompanied by masks or blackening of the face. Indeed, some scholars trace the origins of the English word “mumming” back to the ancient Greek term for “mask,” mommo. In some cases, the mummer’s costume represented a mythical figure whose character or behavior the mummer enacted in a kind of folk drama called a mummers’play. In other cases, mummers simply cavorted under the cover of disguise, engaging in playful but sometimes rather unruly behavior to the amusement or irritation of their neighbors. Christmas time mumming was particularly common in the British Isles, where it survived as a popular folk custom until the mid-nineteenth century.

How did this custom attach itself to the Christmas season? Some would answer this question by pointing to the revels that took place during the ancient Roman feast of KALENDS. During this midwinter new year festival, groups of young men ran through the streets dressed as women or animals and, under the cover of disguise, engaged in many behaviors that would normally have been frowned upon.
Although Christian authorities condemned these activities, they proved difficult to stamp out, even after Christianity became the dominant religion and Christmas an important winter holiday. One researcher has counted at least forty separate Church documents containing official denunciations of these kinds of midwinter masquerades. These documents range from the fourth to the eleventh centuries and come from authorities in many European lands as well as north Africa and the Near East.

Some researchers believe that these ancient customs lingered on in a few places, eventually giving rise to Christmas time mumming practices. Others disagree, arguing that these ancient practices died out in all but a few places hundreds of years before medieval mumming customs were established. In any case, Christmas time mumming can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. The earliest documents referring to it date back to the thirteenth century. Although mumming sprang from the lower classes, by the fourteenth century King Edward III adopted an elaborate rendition of this practice as a Christmas season entertainment at court. Among the elite, these costumed Christmas revels eventually developed into MASQUES or masquerades.
In some areas mumming was known as “masking” or “guising” (from the word “disguise”). In other areas the word “guising” eventually became “geese dancing.” In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century ENGLAND bands of mummers, also called “maskers” or “guisers,” frequently appeared on the streets during the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. The following account of one such band in the fifteenth century illustrates the mixture of fun and fear that the revelers inspired:

John Hadman, a wealthy citizen, made disport with his neighbors and friends, and was crowned King of Christmas. He rode in state through the city, dressed forth in silks and tinsel, and preceded by twelve persons habited as the twelve months of the year. After King Christmas followed Lent, clothed in white garments trimmed with herring skins, on horseback, the horse being decorated with trappings of oyster shells, being indicative that sadness and a holy time should follow the Christmas revelling. In this way they rode through the city, accompanied by numbers in various grotesque dresses, making disport and merriment; some clothed in armour; others, dressed as devils, chased the people, and sorely affrighted the women and children; others wearing skin dresses, and counterfeiting bears, wolves, lions, and other animals, and endeavoring to imitate the animals they represented, in roaring and raving, alarming the cowardly and appalling the stoutest hearts [Halpert and Story, 1969, 49].

For the most part, people engaged in mumming and welcomed mummers into their homes because it was fun. Mummers relished parading in costume and appreciated the protection it gave them to praise or tease their neighbors as they saw fit. The less well-off might also avail themselves of this opportunity to exact hospitality from their more prosperous neighbors. Indeed, mummers usually demanded and received food or drink from each household or locale they visited. No doubt many people liked the lively atmosphere created by the mummers and enjoyed their entertaining antics. Others probably resented being pestered for GIFTS of food and drink.

In Great Britain and IRELAND some mummers eventually began to entertain their hosts with short folk dramas called mummers’plays. Since mummers’ plays were often passed down through oral traditions, they varied in many details. Nevertheless, three main story lines emerge, which experts have dubbed the hero-combat, the sword play, and the wooing ceremony. The hero-combat was the most popular of these stories. Some of the characters likely to appear in this play include St. George, FATHER CHRISTMAS, the king of EGYPT or England, the king’s daughter, a pompous doctor, and a Turkish knight. The story revolves around a fight between the hero, St. George, and the Turkish knight. One combatant kills the other. Afterwards, the bumbling doctor miraculously manages to revive the dead soldier. All of this takes place amidst a great deal of silly or garbled dialogue in which characters flatly announce their identities and narrate their actions. Father Christmas often serves as a kind of announcer for the play. In England women did not usually take part in mumming, so all the roles were played by men.
After presenting their play, the mummers collected coins from the audience in return for their dramatic efforts. Mummers performed these plays most frequently at Christmas time, but in some areas they were presented around Easter and All Souls’Day (November 2). Although some writers believe these plays, or at least the themes they touch on, to be ancient, others point out that the earliest written records of the plays date back to the eighteenth century.

British and Irish mumming traditions have been well documented by generations of historians and folklorists. Although Christmas mumming was practiced in many parts of Europe, it is somewhat more difficult to find descriptions of the custom from other Euro-pean countries (see also CHRISTMAS IN BULGARIA; CHRISTMAS IN LATVIA; CHRISTMAS IN LITHUANIA; CHRISTMAS IN RUSSIA; for similar customs practiced outside of Europe, see CHRISTMAS IN ECUADOR; CHRISTMAS IN MARSHALL ISLANDS; CHRISTMAS IN NIGERIA). One of the best portraits of the practice outside of Great Britain and Ireland comes from the pen of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the great Russian writer. The following excerpt from his novel War and Peace (1865-69) describes Christmas festivities in a well-to-do Russian household:
The mummers (some of the house-serfs) dressed up as bears, Turks, inn-keepers and ladies—frightening and funny — bringing with them the cold from the outside and a feeling of gaiety, crowded, at first timidly, into the anteroom, then hiding behind one another they pushed into the ballroom where shyly at first and then more and more merrily and heartily, they started singing, dancing, and playing Christmas games. The countess, when she had identified them and laughed at their costumes, went into the drawing-room. ... Half an hour later there appeared among the other mummers in the ballroom an old lady in a hooped skirt — this was Nicholas. A Turkish girl was Petya. A clown was Dimmler. An hussar was Natasha, and a Circassian was Sonya with burnt-cork mustache and eyebrows. After the condescending surprise, non-recognition, and praise from those who were not themselves dressed up, the young people decided that their costumes were so good that they ought to be shown elsewhere.

Mumming remained a popular Christmas season pastime in Eng-land until the mid-nineteenth century. After that time it faded away almost completely, being kept alive in only a few places by local enthusiasts. Long before its decline, however, English emigrants had carried this custom to the New World. In the seventeenth century the English established themselves in Newfoundland (now part of Canada). Local inhabitants there carried on a tradition of Christmas mumming, or “mummering,” as they called it, until the 1960s.
In the United States English settlers introduced mumming to an ethnically diverse population. In Pennsylvania, English Christmas time mumming traditions combined with the German folk figure Belsnickel to create the custom of belsnickeling. When these influences collided with the holiday season noisemaking traditions of Scandinavians and the musical and dance heritage of African Americans, new traditions were born.
Although Philadelphia city officials periodically attempted to dis-band the noisy holiday revelers, they finally accepted these customs in an organized format, issuing the first official permit for the Philadelphia MUMMERS PARADE in 1901. Philadelphians continue to stage this extravagant event every year on New Year’s Day. Squads of elaborately costumed mummers, magnificent floats, and lively string bands all march through the city streets, and judges select the winning entries. In spite of its name the parade bears little resemblance to its ancestral English mumming traditions, except that participants wear costumes and, often, masks.

Mumming was only one of a number of old Christmas customs that authorized revelry, including unruly or forbidden behavior, under the cover of masks and disguises. These practices span many centuries and come from different lands. Examples include belsnickel-ing, the ceremonies surrounding the BOY BISHOP, the customs associated with Berchta, BLACK PETER, GERMANY’s KNOCKING NIGHTS, the Feast of Fools, masques, PANTOMIMES, Los PASTORES, Las POSADAS, PLOUGH MONDAY, ST. SYLVESTER’S DAY, and TWELFTH NIGHT celebrations. Although their historical and cultural roots vary, some authors identify in these customs a perennial return to the ancient theme of celebrating midwinter with costumed merrymaking.

Although Christmas mumming no doubt entertained many participants and onlookers, mummers also caused many disturbances. Complaints against mummers ranged from excessive noisiness to malicious mischief and, even, criminal acts. Perhaps the excitement of shedding one’s usual social role with the aid of a disguise, combined with a good deal to drink, tilted some mummers towards raucous behavior. In other cases, some who set out to steal, incite political disturbances, or simply settle old scores with a neighbor found it convenient to disguise themselves as mummers. This tendency toward disorder caused local authorities throughout the centuries to attempt to eradicate the practice. Indeed, the oldest document known to mention Christmas mumming records that it was forbidden in the French town of Troyes in 1263. In 1405 the practice was outlawed in London.
In the seventeenth century the PURITANS railed against it. Throughout the nineteenth century Pennsylvania legislators attempted to abolish it. Ironically, legislators were never able to kill this form of folk entertainment. Mumming finally died a natural death at a ripe old age when the societies that gave birth to it had changed so much that ordinary people simply abandoned the practice.