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Mumming in the New Year
by Bob Brooke

 

Mummers can trace their roots as far back as ancient Egypt. They're best documented during the medieval period, where the mummers' play was a popular pastime for the poor. There's a wide variety of mummer plays, but mostly they weree characterized by big masks and pantomime traditions.



As time went on, the mummers began to beg for food or drink from those in the area after performing a satirical skit or poem.

Some of the earliest mummers’ plays date back to early Egypt, pagan Rome and Greece, England, Germany, and France. Historically, mummery has influenced customs and perpetuated many interesting traditions. Every nation had its mumming festivals at one time or another, each marked by parades and displays of fanciful costumes.

Medieval mummers were amateur actors who performed different plays in the villages at the harvest time or on some religious occasion such as Christmas. Sometimes, these plays specifically preached religious teachings but mostly they were just for entertainment.



These medieval mummers possessed all the skills required for a sound medieval entertainer, including acrobatics, singing, mimicry, pantomime, and other kinds of entertainment. Eventually they formed into traveling bands of actors with different particpants possessing specialized acting skills.

The repetoire of medieval mummers was varied. One common form was a play done in disguise which was mainly popular in the English speaking parts of Europe. This play was a comic performance mainly done is disguise, although it was common to include various religious themes. In parts of Britain and Ireland, Plough Plays, performed on Plough Monday, were also popular. Plays based on stories from the Bible became popular during the middle and late medieval times. It was also common to stage plays based on popular legends; One such legend was “St. George and the Dragon,” and plays based on it became quite popular.

Most commonly, medieval mummers performed in open spaces where a stage could be set up for the performers. Nobles and monarchs held mummering parties, in which case the plays took place indoors. Among English monarchs, Henry VII was famous for holding mummering parties where medieval entertainers enacted plays.

It was common for medieval mummers to wear outrageous costumes during their performances. For example, men could dress like women and vice versa. Sometimes, the actors wore costumes resembling animals. The costumes mainly depended on the kind of play and mostly featured an element of humor.



Christmas was a very important time for medieval entertainers, just like everyone else. Medieval mummers performed various plays on Christmas Eve with predominantly religious themes. For instance, various stories from the Bible could be adapted into plays and performed. In the Christmas season, plays performed during the All Souls’ Day were called Souling or soul-caking and were quite popular in medieval Britain.

On June 25, 1861, an "Act to make further provisions for the prevention of Nuisances" was introduced in response to the death of Isaac Mercer in Bay Roberts. Mercer had been murdered by a group of masked mummers on December 28, 1860. The Bill made it illegal to wear a disguise in public without permission of the local magistrate. Mummering in rural communities continued despite the passage of the Bill, although the practice did die out in larger towns and cities.



Today, mumming is a Christmas-time house-visiting tradition practiced in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, as well as in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom.

An old Christmas custom from England and Ireland, mummering in a version of its modern form can be traced back to 19th-century Newfoundland. Although it’s unclear precisely when this tradition arrived in Newfoundland and whether it was by the English or the Irish, the earliest record dates back to 1819. Some historians believe that Irish immigrants brought the tradition to Newfoundland from County Wexford. The tradition varied, and continues to vary, from community to community.



Also known as mumming or janneying, it typically involves a group of friends or family who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community or neighboring communities during the twelve days of Christmas. If the mummers are welcomed into a house, they often do a variety of informal performances that may include dance, music, jokes, or recitations. The hosts must guess the mummers' identities before offering them food or drink. They may poke and prod the mummers or ask them questions. To make this a challenge for the hosts, the mummers may stuff their costumes, cross-dress, or speak while inhaling. Once the mummers have been identified, they remove their disguises, spend some social time with the hosts, and then travel as a group to the next home.

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