Christmas Past: Exeter Mummers

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A Regency Twelfth Night party: the Exeter Mummers might have looked similar

The December 1883 edition of the Western Antiquary contains an article entitled “Christmas Pastimes in Exeter Sixty Years Ago”. The author’s main topic is mumming, and the piece gives an insight into festive traditions of circa 1823 — traditions that were apparently viewed as old-fashioned even in the late Victorian era. I’ve reproduced some excerpts below.


Railways, penny newspapers, telegrams, and the “wondrous brain-power” of political leaders in these days have annihilated most of the old customs indulged in by out forefathers. “The Mummers” were an institution recognised at Christmas time. A few lads occupied their spare time after leaving work, towards Christmas, in preparing for the heroic drama of St. George. The “getting up” was not such as Mr. Planché would approve of, or the dialogue such as would pass muster before even the humblest critic of the modern drama. “The Mummers” did not seek criticism so much as coppers.

“If unmelodious was their song,
It was a hearty note and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mysterie;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made.”

The septuagenarian of Exeter will well remember these old “mummers” traversing the streets at Christmas time, in all their finery of white shirts, white trowsers [sic], ribbons, swords and buckles, performing , as they did, in the various public-houses, and in such private houses as they could command attention from; and in the country also, from the baronial ball to the farm-house kitchen, they always had a cordial welcome, commencing at Christmas-eve, the ashen-faggot saturnalia, “When old Christmas brought his sports again.”

The exploits of the favourite patron saint of England St. George, and his destruction of the mighty Turk, formed the prominent feature of this household drama. Probably it was a remnant of the old Miracle plays of the Middle ages, and represented the triumph of Christianity over Paganism. The principal characters were St. George, the Turkish Knight, old Father Christmas, old Dol Dorothy, and the Doctor. Latterly, some rather incongruous additions were made – as the Duke of Wellington, Blucher, and Napoleon, probably rising out of a patriotic feeling after the battle of Waterloo.

[…]

The old “Mummers” disguising seems now to be transferred to the Fifth of November night, but our old “Mummers” were satisfied with their own rendering of the costume of the renowned individuals they attempted to resuscitate. Our modern Fifth of November gallants are more pronounced, and give us, in tinsel and cardboard, brilliant representations of the Knights of old, or the proud Turk In his gorgeous finery.

The country “Mummers” had their code of laws:—Anything verging upon intoxication was punished by a fine. A Turkey fig was used to keep the voice in order, and after a week or ten days’ “outing,” the performers would share£3 or £4 each.

“The Waits,” or “Singers,” on Christmas morning were almost universal in the Exeter parishes, sixty years ago! nor are they quite fossilized now, as during a wakeful, still Christmas night ,we catch that pleasant echo of old memories and bygone days!—

“Awake, awake, it is the happy morn;”
Or,
“Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King.”

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