Wednesday, 25 December 2013

On the Feast of Stephen by Simon Stirling

Among the many traditions associated with December 26th - the feast day of St Stephen - probably the most common is the giving of money, a practice which can be traced back to Roman times.  Churches often opened their alms-boxes for the benefit of the needy on this day, while alms-seekers sometimes went from house-to-house with their own begging boxes (one of the origins of the term Boxing Day).

There were also events at which collections were made, and one of the most enduring of these activities was Mumming.

Mumming was an ancient form of folk theatre.  It was not restricted to Boxing Day - in different places, the Mummers could present their annual play on Plough Monday, Good Friday, All Souls Day, Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve.  But two of the most popular forms of Mumming, the Hero-Combat Play and the Sword Dance, were performed most often on the day after Christmas.

The antiquity of the Mumming tradition can only be guessed at: Mummers were certainly around during the Middle Ages, and Mummers' Plays continue to this day.  Though there are some regional variations, the basic outline of the Mummers' Play was pretty much the same everywhere.  I have based the rest of this post on the Mumming tradition of Weston-sub-Edge, a small village just a few miles from where I live.
The Mummers would enter the larger houses in the district, the local inn or even just perform on the village green.  There was usually plenty of singing and traditional dancing, but the heart of the ceremony was a peculiar little pantomime based on the seasonal theme of death and rebirth.

First, a space would be cleared:

JOHN FINNEY: A room, a room, a roust, a roust,
                            I brought this old broom to sweep your house.

Then Father Christmas would start the proceedings:

FATHER CHRISTMAS: In comes I, old Father Christmas,
                            Christmas or Christmas not
                            I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
                            I am not here to laugh or to cheer,
                            But all I want is a pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer.
                            So, ladies and gentlemen, if you don't believe what I say,
                            Step in, Turkish Knight, and clear the way.

What followed was a ritualised form of combat between an archetypal enemy (the Turkey or Turkish Knight - a relic of the crusades) and an archetypal hero, usually Saint (or King) George, who might also slay a Dragon as part of the shenanigans.

The combatants taunted each other in ridiculous rhyme and then fought.  The Turkish Knight, inevitably, fell.  At which point, a Doctor was summoned:

FATHER CHRISTMAS: Oh is there a doctor to be found or any near at hand
                            To heal this deep and deadly wound and make this dead man stand?

The Doctor stepped forward and examined the dead Knight:

DOCTOR: Ladies and gentlemen, here's a large wolf's tooth growing in this man's head and must be taken out before he'll recover.

FATHER CHRISTMAS: What's thy fee, Doctor?

DOCTOR: Ten guineas is my fee,
                            But fifteen will I take of thee
                            Before I set this gallant free.

The Doctor enlisted the help of John Finney - or his localised namesake - and much pseudo-surgical nonsense followed as the humour grew especially knockabout and silly until the tooth was pulled and the Turkish Knight rose again.  Straightaway, the Knight and Saint George resumed their fight, but Father Christmas intervened and summoned Beelzebub:

BEELZEBUB: In comes I, old Beelzebub,
                             And on my back I carries my club,
                             And in my hand the dripping-pan,
                             I thinks myself a jolly old man.

Beelzebub then performed his own party piece - a long, nonsensical speech in the manner of a Shaggy Dog Story.  Then John Finney reminded the assembly why they were there:

JOHN FINNEY: Now, my lads, we've come to the land of plenty, roast stones, plum puddings, houses thatched with pancakes, and little pigs running about with knives and forks stuck in their backs, crying "Who'll eat me, who'll eat me?"

Father Christmas summoned Cleverlegs:

CLEVERLEGS: In comes I, ain't been hit,
                            With me big hump and little wit.
                            Me chump's so big, me wit's so small,
                            But I can play you a tune to please you all.

There was a song and a dance (the tune suggested was "Ran tan tinderbox, Cat in the fiddle bag, Johnnie up up the orchard"), before Father Christmas drew the merriment to a close with a collection for the players:

FATHER CHRISTMAS: If this old frying pan had but a tongue,
                            He's say, "Chuck in yer money and think it no wrong."

Behind all the quaint folksy nonsense, the typical Mummers' Play re-enacted the seasonal ritual of death and rebirth, the end of the Old Year (which finished at the solstice) and the start of the New (which began when the days started noticeably to lengthen, on or around the 25th December).  Though it was the Turkish Knight - or sometimes St George - who "died" and was "resurrected", often more than once, by the quackish Doctor, in reality it was the ending/beginning of the solar year which was commemorated, as it had been since the dawn of human time.

It was also a Christmastide festivity and an excuse to pass round the hat - or the "frying pan" - to collect money for food and drink.  The costumes were bizarre and the story was silly, but the tradition lasted for an untold length of time as a kind of forerunner of the more familiar pantomime (which didn't become associated specifically with the Christmas season in Britain until the 19th century) and a rustic celebration of the turn of the year.


  1. What a funny lot we English are. No wonder we turned out such comedy acts as the Goons and Monty Python with our comedic history! Thanks for posting this Simon! It's great!

  2. What a great article! Simon, I love the topics you choose and how you present them. Simply fantastic.

  3. I enjoyed this article so much Simon, and I had not heard of Mummers before reading this.

  4. This is delightful! Thanks for posting.