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A Brief History of Mummers and Guising
What is a "Mummer"?
Mumming is an ancient tradition that is all but faded from the general population's memory and seasonal customs. It predates the tradition of putting on a costume for Halloween and other parties, and probably is the forerunner to our modern-day custom of trick-or-treating. If one is to look up the term "mummer" on Google, one would find mostly a mummer being described as a person who dresses up and puts on seasonal plays. But a mummer was so much more.
A mummer, according to Celtic and Nordic folk traditions, is not only someone who disguises himself to perform in seasonal plays, but he is also a being that walks between the worlds - between the mundane and the spiritual. This is why in old Scottish traditions the mummers on Hogmanay (New Year's) would travel to loved ones' homes and perform an old custom of what is believed to have been driving away evil spirits. But let us take a deeper look at the customs of the Mummer and how these customs have deeply influenced our seasonal traditions in modern times.
The Tradition of Mummers
Although the tradition of mumming dates back to ancient times, mummers can still be seen today in countries all across Europe. In England, mummers would go door-to-door and put on a show that the children particularly loved. From a nineteenth century book titled Christmas Time, it was said that the mummers would put on a play called St. George of which was many a child's favorite to see. And I quote "there were the maskers of ancient times, who were never failing attendants upon Christmas, and who assumed various characters, grave as well as gay, and were the source of much innocent merriment and healthful laughter."
A custom that is well-known in England, Cornwall, Scotland and other places throughout Europe is the hobby horse. It is often paired with the custom of mumming either from house to house or down a street during a parade. Usually someone will dress up in a horse costume of different kinds and parade around the town during a holiday (they are seen on All Souls Night, Christmas, New Years, etc.) This tradition of the hobby horse is thought to date back to pagan times and is most likely a symbol of fertility, though no one really knows for sure.
Again the tradition of mumming dates back centuries, probably thousands of years, and is something that can be found all throughout Europe and even in Russia. When I think of mummers, I also think of pantomimes and "jesters" in the royal courts. All three of these performers have things in common - to entertain by costuming, dancing, singing, acrobatics, putting on plays and generally joking around. How close are the words mumming and panto-miming...I'd say pretty close. The origins of both are very likely the same. And although their lightheartedness brings a smile to viewers' faces, they are engaging in a historical act that dates back to pagan times.
Depending on the country - mummers can be seen on at least a dozen holidays, including but not limited to: All Hallows' Eve, Shrove Tuesday, Fat Thursday, Hogmanay (New Years), Christmas/Yule/Winter Solstice, Midsummer, May Day and even on Easter.
Hogmanay in Scotland
Hogmanay is the celebrated New Year in Scotland believed to date back to the eighth century and brought to Scotland by the Norse invaders. On this day, much celebration and folly is put on by the local townsfolk; moreover, Edinburgh is known to have held one of the largest New Years parties on record. One Hogmanay tradition is that a small group of people would go from house to house singing and chanting a traditional Hogmanay rhyme called Auld Lang Syne. One of the people in the group would be dressed with a mask and the horns of a bull on his head, this tradition reflecting a time when many would dress as cattle and beat one another with sticks. Hogmanay's origins most likely stem from pagan roots. We can see remnants of the Vikings' celebration of the Winter Solstice as well as the Celts' celebration of Samhain intertwined in the festivities of Hogmanay.
Clearly the tradition of dressing up in costume can be related back to the Celts' Samhain traditions of blending in with their crossed-over loved ones...or perhaps to even scare off the mischievous ones. The custom of mummers dressing as cattle most likely dates back to a time when the Scots believed this would aid in luck for healthy livestock in the coming year. Other people believe the act of dressing in costume would automatically put the wearer into the otherworld - giving him/her the ability to cross the veil between the spiritual and mundane.
On old long syne my Jo,
On old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
On old long syne
-Chorus of Auld Lang Syne— Robert Burns
"Guising" and the Custom of Trick-or-Treating
Dressing up in costume, also known as "guising", is a part of the mummer's act. Doesn't the tradition of dressing up and visiting neighbors seem very similar to the Irish/American Halloween tradition? In the United States on Halloween night, children will dress in various costumes and go door-to-door asking for candy or "treats". Most people have no idea where this custom originates, and needless to say their children are engaging in an ancient pagan tradition.
Guising is thought to have originated in ancient Celtic times on the Celtic festival known as Samhain. Samhain was the night before the Celtic New Year and was thought to be the one night of the year when the spirits of the dead could return to visit the living. Those who wanted to blend in with the spirits that ran amok that night had to disguise themselves...this is where we get the word "guising". Often the spirits of the Celts' ancestors would visit them for dinner, but it was often well-known that more malevolent spirits could cause problems on Samhain. SO another reason for dressing up in costume is thought to have been to scare the evil spirits away. We can see where the tradition of dressing in costume during modern Halloween originates in ancient times.
Guising combined with the concept of "souling" from the Dark Ages and onwards creates what we call Halloween in modern times. Trick or treating originates with people going from door to door, singing songs for the souls in purgatory and singing for "soul-cakes". Now we have children who dress in costume and ask for candy on a night where most people don't know has its beginning in ancient times. If you'd like to read more about Halloween's pagan origins, go here.
Modern Day Mummers
So now that we know the basic history behind mumming, can you think of any modern day mummers? Are people still carrying out these traditions in modern times, or has the custom fallen to the wayside?
There are in fact modern day mummers in Philadelphia. These Philadelphia Mummers put on a parade every year with music, comedy, costumes and fun. The parade originates in the late 1800s and is the oldest parade running in the United States to this day. Their website states that it was a way to "celebrate the New Year". Sound familiar? Hogmanay, perhaps?
In addition to the Philadelphia Mummers, let's not forget that there are still carolers at Christmas-time, mimes in theaters, and street performers all over the place. All of these types of performers give a nod to the old-school mummers.
© 2015 Nicole Canfield