Thursday, December 24, 2009


"In comes I, Old Father Christmas.
Welcome? Or welcome not?
I hope Father Christmas will never be forgot!"
I'm from the Philly area, and when somebody mentions mummers around here, we all picture big burly guys wearing pink feathers as they strut down Broad Street on New Year's Day. I mean, doesn't everyone?

Actually seasonal mummery goes back probably to the Dark Ages or earlier. The word mummer at first denoted someone who performed stories in mime while wearing a masked costume. These masquerades were immensely popular during the Renaissance all over Europe, including Harlequin in France and the Italian Comedie. In the British Isles, the art form took a life of its own. These plays were performed at the turning of all seasons, symbolically showing, say, the death and rebirth of the year, or the return of spring, or the reaping of the harvest.

A favorite Yuletide mummer plot was about a king or knight (almost always also a saint) who slays an evil beast, then is himself miraculously brought back to life. The most familiar characters were St. George and the Dragon from England, but in Cornwall, the saint might be King Petroc, and in Ireland, you might find St. Patrick fighting the Wild Worm.

The "mime" was eventually replaced by rhyme, usually in couplet. As poetry goes, this stuff isn't prime, though it tells the story, and once in a while, you'll find some decent wit as well. All mummers plays tend to have similar characters and plots, but as they evolved through the ages, each generation put their own spin on the words, with political and topical references. If the actors are ham enough, they're always entertaining. You can still find mummers plays throughout England, and in many places settled by Englishman, like Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and even in the Carribean, where mummers take to the streets on stilts.

In my novel POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, the mummers are typical of Colonial Virginia, where they may have used grain sacks for masks and substituted King George III for the Dragon. By the 18th century in America, mummers were usually working class or poor who did their best to get a charity handout from richer folk, sometimes even forcing their way into houses at gunpoint (emboldened by drink, of course--see my last blog on wassailing). This practice became so commonplace by 1800 that most American cities, like Philadelphia, passed Masquerade Acts forbidding anyone from walking the streets wearing a mask.

Things were quiet until the 1840s, when a few neighborhood leaders in Philadelphia approached the city council to ask permission to do a little mummery at Christmastime again, just to keep the tradition alive. The city finally compromised--each mummers group had to vow to keep track of their members and be responsible for their actions, and the groups would be allowed to have a parade only, and not go into people's houses. So, Philadelphia got its Mummers Clubs and New Year's Day Parade.

A Philadelphian moved to Atlanta soon after and organized his own neighborhood mummer club, and from there, someone else took the tradition to New Orleans, where it merged with the local culture's Carnivale tradition and became Mardi Gras.

"Our play is done, we must be gone.
We stay no longer here.
God grant you all, both great and small,
A happy, bright New Year."

Peace and Merry Christmas,

NOTE: I'll be taking a little hiatus from my blog through New Year, but I'll be back for Twelfth Night. Don't take that Christmas tree down too soon!

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