Mummery: Now and Then

On New Year’s Day in Philadelphia a very grand parade happens. The costumes for those in the parade are extravagant, some can even put Mardi Gras costumes to shame. The Tradition in Philadelphia began January 1 , 1901. The purpose of the parade is to welcome in the new year.

Philadelphia’s Parade has five different divisions and can have several groups in each of those divisions. The “Fancy” category is just that, the costumes are colorful and sometimes outrageous with sequins, feathers and structures to make the costumes larger than life. The” Comic” division is all about clowning around, The mummers can dress as modern cartoons, poke fun at politicians, or just about anything to get a laugh. The “Wench Brigade” division is an offshoot of the comic division, these groups tend to have painted faces, decorated umbrellas and wear bloomers as part of their costume, They are also known for having Brass Bands that accompany them. The “String Band” division is made up of costumed musicians with a unique sound, Most of the music is composed by the group themselves and the instruments include; banjos, cellos, violins, fiddles, drums, glockenspiels and saxophones. The last division is the “Fancy Brigade,” who perform in competition after the parade is over at the convention center and have elaborate routines and costumes to go along with their presentation each year.

The Mummer traditions however did not start in Philadelphia however, Mummery has a very long history and comes in many different forms. Mummery or Mumming simply means to wear a mask. The traditions of modern mummery and the modern theatre are based in ancient mummery which by some has been traced back to the second century BCE in in North Africa and Europe. Actors were known to dress up and reenact religious events at festivals celebrating various gods or epic battles to celebrate a king, emperor or chieftain. Mummery would also spread to other important European Pagan festivals prior to Christian influence like: Yule (Winter Solstice), Mid Winter/Imbolc (fertility celebration, February 1) Spring (Mayday/ Beltane), Midsummer Summer Solstice (June 21-22), Lughnasadh/ Lammas (August 1, The harvest of wheat), Samhain/Halloween/ All Souls Day (October 31, The end of the Harvest).

During the spread of Christianity the Pagan traditions were often adopted as part of the Christian Holy Days that were placed at the times of prior Pagan celebrations. Much of the modern tradition of mummery comes as part of modern holidays/holy days.

Mumming in Ireland has many traditions usually done in and around the Yule/ Christmas season. Hanner’s Chronicle describes King Henry III’s celebration of Christmas in Dublin in 1172 as “…the sport, and the mirth, and the continual musicke, the masking, the mumming and strange shewes, the gold, the silver, and plate, the precious ornaments, the dainty dishes….” At Christmas time in Ireland, Mummers sometime perform plays or sometimes go door to door looking for food or drink, they are usually accompanied by musicians. The come to the door and sing a song much like this one:

Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey; give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.

Cure I can for a noble fee,
From your complaint, I’ll set you free.
I can cure by day and night
I can diagnose by sight.
The plague it is no pague to me
Get it, kind sir, and I’ll set you free.

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
May your barns be filled with wheat and corn
And your hearts be always true.
A merry Christmas is our wish
Where’er we do appear;
To you a well-filled purse, a well-filled dish
And a happy, bright New Year.

Corn Mummers – Part of the Irish Mummer Tradition

Strawmen and Straw-women are another interesting part of Irish mummery. These mummers go out at all times of the year, but only to weddings. Taking their name from their disguise Straw-people are an ancient wedding tradition the origins of which are unclear.  Straw-people are recognisable by their uniquely shaped conical straw hats and dress and, despite their title, nowadays comprise both men and women.

In England, Mummer tend to come out at Christmas time. It is common for the mummers to reenact the battle between St. George and the Dragon, but also plays of winter and rebirth following the traditional yule mummery.

Mummers in England

In Scotland Mummery is popular for New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay) and Beltane/ Mayday. Hogmanay rose after Oliver Cromwell banned celebrations on Christmas because Cromwell felt that Christmas should be a more pius holiday. So the Scots began to celebrate the new year with mummery, bonfires and giant celebrations. On Beltane there are fire festivals with rather extravagant mummery during the festival.

In Wales, between Yule and the new year you may get visited by the Mari Lwyd (The Gray Mare). the Mari Lwyd is thought to be a pre-Christian tradition believed to bring good luck. The strange and frightening horse-figure, that in the past was often made from a horses skull, but now mostly artificial, was mounted upon a pole.  Accompanied by a group of singers the Mari Lwyd knocks on the door and the first verse of a traditional song is sung. This would in turn be answered in song by the person in the house. After a number of verses had been exchanged, the Mari Lwyd singers would then be invited into the house and provided with food and drink before leaving with a farewell song.

The Mari Lwyd in Wales

Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada also have a strong tradition of mummery around the Christmas holiday. Mummers will go door to door ask if they are allowed to come in and sing a song for the homeowner, have a drink and move on to the next. In St. John’s Newfoundland there is a large parade of mummers making music and walking in strange costumes.

The Mummer’s Festival in St. John’s Newfoundland


Philadelphia Mummers –

Mumming – A Yuletide Tradition –

Irish Mummers-

Mari Lwyd, Wales –

Medieval Mummers –

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