Rowing is certainly one of the most British sports.…
An old English Christmas custom: the mummers play
I must admit, I always thought the English have hardly any ancient, authentic customs left, so I was quite surprised when I discovered that not only have the English a nativity play (just like betlehemezés in Hungary), but they also have mumming – a folk play performed by amateur village people. This does not resemble the Hungarian regölés (a ritual folk custom starting on 26th December until New Year’s day when singers go from house to house and visit freshly married couples and wish them to have many children, wealth and good health) or kántálás (carol singing) or paradicsomjáték (Paradise play, the story of Adam and Eve) at all.
The word “mummers” is derived from the German word “mummer” which means mask or a disguised person. The play originates in the pagan times and later it was sharply disapproved by the early Christians. However, leaders of the Church soon realised they might turn it to their advantage and introduced elements of a more spiritual nature into the plays, so the early Christian mystery or miracle plays were born. Beside Christian or religious characters, popular figures of legends and pagan mythology appeared. Although the mumming plays in the UK are very similar, a regional variant may exist. The major Christian element, however, the triumph of good over evil has always been common. Likewise, the 4 core characters are the same:
- Father Christmas, who is the character of the season,
- King George is said to be the corruption of Saint George and interestingly he appears without the dragon, however, in some regions they do include it,
- the Turkish Knight might be an echo from the Crusades and
- the Noble Doctor is the personalisation of good over evil.
Mummers started performances 2 weeks before Christmas and would go around pubs every night until Christmas. They were very popular which is understandable, especially if we think about how little entertainment was available back in time and consider the fact that locals hardly ever left the village. There would be several groups per county performing and visiting neighbouring villages. The performance was always a big attraction and at the end people gave some money.
As I live in Berkshire, I researched mummers in this county. As it happens, one document survived and it describes a play that was performed in Hoe Benham until 1900 and which you can read below.
In this specific play beside the four major characters, the following were added:
- Tall and Smart,
- Bold Granny Dear – a corruption of Bold Grenadier,
- Happy Jack and
- Mazzant Binnit – another corruption: “Him as ain’t been yet”, the last character to appear in the play.
Why so many corruptions? Well, the players were often uneducated and illiterate people plus obviously a pint of beer did not help them to concentrate on the pronunciation. The play itself is light hearted and meant to be funny and entertaining.
The Mummers Play of Hoe Benham
Enter Father Christmas, saying –
In comes I, old Father Christmas,
Welcome or not,
And I hope old Father Christmas Will never be forgot.
Christmas comes but once a year
And when it comes it brings good cheer.
Roast beef, plum pudding , mince pies –
Who likes them better, Happy Jack or I?
In this room there shall be shown
The greatest battle that ever was known:
Between King George and the Turkish Knight
Come in to Old England for to fight.
A room, a room, I do pursue,
With my brave boys and soldier too;
And that is the reason why I say,
Walk in King George and clear the way.
Enter King George
King George: In come I, King George,
The man of courage bold.
With my board sword in my hand
I won ten thousand pounds in gold.
‘Twas I that fought the fiery dragon
And brought him tothe slaughter,
‘Twas I that won the King of Egypt’s daughter,
With menials so brave and varlets so true.
I have cowered armies and nations,
How bold i tis to say
I will fight any fighting man that comes within my way.
Enter the Foreign King
Foreign King: In comes the Foreign King,
With my board sword in my hand I will quickly make it swing –
Likewise I am the bold Turkish Knight,
Just returned to Old England for to fight.
Let King George, that man of courage bold,
Draw his sword: if his blood does heat
I will quickly make it cool.
King George: Hold thou Turkish Knight!
Thou talkest very bold.
But draw thou sword and fight,
Or draw thy purse and pay,
For satisfaction I will have
Afore thou goes away.
Turkish Knight: Satisfaction! King George, there is no satisfation at all, for thee and I will battle to see which of us on the floor shall first fall.
They fight. Turkish Knight is beaten to his knee.
Turkish Knight: Pardon me, pardon me this once I pray!
Pardon me King George and for ever I will be thy slave!
They fight. Turkish Knight is killed.
Father Christmas: Oh king, oh king, what hast thou done?
Thou has ruined me by killing my only son!
King George: Nay, father, ’twas thy son as gave met he first challenge.
Father Christmas: Is there a doctor to be found,
To cure this man lying bleeding and wounded on the ground?
King George: Yes, there is a doctor to be found,
To cure this man lying wounded and bleeding in the ground.
Father Christmas: Who is he?
King George: Peter Gray.
Enter Peter Gray.
Peter Gray: Who are you a-calling Peter Gray?
My name is MisterGray,
So the people say.
Father Christmas: Oh doctor, doctor, what is thy fee?
Peter Gray: Ten guineas is my fee,
But fifty will I take of thee.
Father Christmas: Take it all, doctor, but what canst thou cure?
Peter Gray: I can cure the itch and the stitch, the pousy and the gout,
All pains within and all pains without,
And if this man’s got a bush in his toe,
I can pull it out.
Yes, I am a little noble doctor; I am not one of the deceitful doctors as walk about from one place to the other. What I do I does before you all, ladies and gentlemen; ’tis hard if you can’t believe your own eyes. I’ve got a bottle here called the foster drops. I’ll put one drop on the tip of his tounge and one drop on the palm of is hand, and I will say to him ‘Arise, arise, and walk gently as thoucanst.’
King George: Arise, arise, and get thee back to thine own country, and tell them that King George can fight ten thousand better men than thee.
Father Christmas: Walk in Tall and Smart
Enter Tall and Smart
Tall and Smart: In comes I, both Tall and Smart,
I tell my mind with all my heart.
My head is made of iron,
My body’s lined with steel,
My trousers fits my legs so tight,
My garters drags my heels.
First comes Christmas and then comes Spring,
I am a little jolly lad that can either dance or sing.
Father Christmas: Walk in Bold Granny Dear
Enter Bold Granny Dear
Bold Granny Dear: In comes I, Bold Granny Dear
For Tall and Smart I do not fear.
If his head is made of iron
And his body lined with steel,
From his head to his shoulders
I will quickly make him feel.
Father Christmas: Walk in Happy Jack
Enter Happy Jack
Happy Jack: In come I, little Happy Jack,
With my wife and family at my back.
My family large though I am small,
Little helps us all.
Out of nine I got but five,
And half oft hey are starved alive.
A cup of Christmas ale will make us dance and sing,
But money in our pockets is a much better thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, sitting at your ease,
Give us a little Christmas box, just what you please.
Father Christmas: Walk in Mazzant Binnit
Enter Mazzant Binnit
Mazzant Binnit: In comes I as aint been yet,
With my big head and little wit.
My head so big, my witso small,
I comes with my fiddle to please you all.
Blue sleeves, yellow lace,
All you mummers dance a pace.
The fiddler is a great distress
For want of a little money.
When I relocated to England, I found myself on a village green where the community lit bonfires on Guy Fawkes Night and it was great to see that people came together and had some fun, wine and a chat by the fire. Although old traditions like the mummers play did not fully extinct and are played in some areas for example in St Albans, it would be so lovely to see their revival in small villages. I believe this could be an attraction for foreign visitors as well and would be far more interesting than Halloeween or Black Friday…
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