A Christmas Custom

on Tuesday, 10 December 2013. Posted in Traditions and Folklore

Mummers’ plays were an important part of Christmas for many agricultural labourers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These seem to be first recorded in the mid 18th century and although there are medieval precedents the connections between the two are uncertain. The later ones provided an opportunity for poorly paid labourers to make some extra income by taking their play around the houses of local farmers and gentry where they would normally receive food, drink and some money.

 

The characters included a hero, often St. George or King George, his adversary, often a Turkish Knight, a doctor, a fool and a narrator, often Father Christmas in later versions, and a character who collects the money at the conclusion. Normally the Turkish Knight is killed by St. George and revived or resurrected by the doctor. There are many elements in the plays, both pagan and Christian and the plays and the names of characters may have changed from generation to generation.

The plays, normally each village would have its own version, were kept alive by ordinary people who had an interest in being able to supplement their wages once a year. Many did not survive the First World War although in Wiltshire mumming plays were still being performed at Alton Barnes in 1930 and at Shrewton in 1936, but the Potterne mummers known as the 'Potterne Christmas Boys' were still active and entertaining audiences in 2012!

Words and characters of original plays can be found in the Folk/Arts section on our Wiltshire Community History web site at the end of this article.

William Morris the founder of the Swindon Advertiser, writing in 1885 about pre-railway Swindon, says that the Mummers were to be found in every town and village of North Wilts – six or eight men in various disguises – and that they would also visit public houses as well as private ones. His father was the Swindon bookseller and at the onset of winter was always besieged by people wanting Mummers’ books, but of course there were none. The only way to learn was to get an old Mummer to constantly repeat the words and learn them by heart.

A Mummer in Chippenham was rather unhappy in December 1850, and it wasn't due to responses regarding his repertoire. Aged 15, he was one of a number of 'Christmas Boys' who were visiting a public house, and he had his pistol with him which was stolen.  The accused were charged with the offence that same month.

 

Mike Marshman
County Local Studies Librarian

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