Christmas Past: The Mummers’ Decline

Today’s festive clipping comes from an 1859 volume entitled The Christmas Book: Christmas in the Olden Time, its Customs and their Origin. Here, the book outlines the once-traditional mumming play, in which Father Christmas presides over a battle between St. George and the Turkish Knight. There are many other descriptions of this stock play available, of course, but this one is notable in that it includes first-hand accounts of specific performances and documents an apparent decline in mummery over the first half of the nineteenth century.

In Hampshire, the following was called a Christmas play, within our recollection, and in boyhood’s hour of wonder it afforded us pleasure, which will never be forgotten. There was a party of eight, dressed most fantastically, in all colors and fashions, but first came venerable old Father Christmas, who cried aloud–

“Room, room, all you leave brave gallants give room,
I’ve come with my sports to drive away gloom,
To help pass away this cold winter day;
And such sports as never before were seen
Unto all you gallants shall now be shewn.”

This was the prologue, and when delivered the speaker retired, but only for an instant, for he soon returned to say,

“Here comes I, old father Christmas, welcome or welcome not,
I hope old father Christmas will never be forgot,
All in this room there shall now be shewn
The hardest battle that ever was known,
o come in Sir Knight, with thy great heart,
And in the battle quick do thou thy part.

The book goes on to describe the entry of the Turkish Knight along with the other stock characters and summarising the remainder of the play, before concluding:

In many parts of England a play of this kind is still exhibited by the boys who go about to the public-houses and farms, knocking at doors, asking, Are the mummers wanted? where, however, they do not meet the welcome of old. The last party we saw was in the North of England, about ten years back. The Turkish Knight had a pot-lid for his shield, and Sr. George was armed with the rustiest old iron sword eyes ever beheld. It was some ruined actor’s ruined property. It was a clear case of spirit-walking, for only the ghost of an ancient custom could have looked so terrible woe-begone and miserable as did that company of Christmas players.

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