By Vicky Shakeshaft
The Mumming plays are probably the oldest surviving feature of the Christmas festivities, dating from the pre-Roman era. They represent the contest between the powers of light and darkness, and the basic play is always the same. The plays were not written down until recently but were passed orally from generation to generation. There was no script but Walter Rose of Haddenham in the 1870’s, observed that old men knew the words to the last letter and tolerated no variations.
Sometimes memories or hearing were not very good and a character who started life as the “Bold Roamer” may have become the “Ball Roomer”, and in several versions the Turkish Knight has become the “Turkey Snipe”. The power of darkness is represented by the Turkish Knight, this dating from the times of the Crusades when the national enemy was the Turk or Saracen.
The hero is always St George (sometimes King George, after the Hanoverian monarchs) but he occasionally bears his earlier name of Bold Slasher or Bold Soldier.
The actors were usually the village lads and as they would be well known to their audience they were disguised as the old fear and magic of the ritual remained in people’s minds.
Of the characters in the play one is usually a beggar. This reveals what the mumming plays became, a means by which the poor obtained charity from the rich. It was the custom for the mummers to do the round of the big houses and in return they would collect gifts of money and Christmas fayre; it was a reason for the rural poor to keep the plays alive.
The plays were most widely performed and survived better in the southern counties. Evidence has been found of plays in no fewer than 45 towns and villages in Sussex, 32 in Wiltshire, 20 in Gloucestershire and 10 in Oxfordshire. In Hampshire almost every village had its mummers and the New Forest Mummers is a revival from 1967.
Christmas Eve and the evening of Boxing Day are the most popular dates for performances but in some counties they are performed at other seasons and performers are known as pace-eggers, soul-cakers and sword dancers.
Mumming was a customary part of English village life until 1914. It survives vigorously in Newfoundland where traditions have crossed the Atlantic with the settlers although it is now confined to the house-visit; but with the resurgence of interest in our traditional past the art of mumming may make a comeback… as with our own Stony Stratford Mummers.