Christmas Masking

The custom of Christmas masking, “mumming,” or “disguising” can be traced at the English court as early as the reign of Edward III. It is in all probability connected with that wearing of beasts’ heads and skins—its origin in folk-custom seems to have been the coming of a band of worshippers clad in this uncouth but auspicious garb to bring good luck to a house. The most direct English survival is found in the village mummers who still call themselves “guisers” or “geese-dancers” and claim the right to enter every house.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the English court masque reached its greatest developments; the fundamental idea was then generally overlaid with splendid trappings, the dresses and the arrangements were often extremely elaborate, and the introduction of dialogued speech made these “disguises” regular dramatic performances. A notable example is Ben Jonson's “Masque of Christmas.” Shakespeare, however, gives us in “Henry VIII.” an example of a simpler impromptu form: the king and a party dressed up as shepherds break in upon a banquet of Wolsey's.


In this volume we are more concerned with the popular Christmas than with the festivities of kings and courts and grandees. Mention must, however, be made of a personage who played an important part in the Christmas of the Tudor court and appeared also in colleges, Inns of Court, and the houses of the nobility—the “Lord of Misrule.” He was annually elected to preside over the revels, had a retinue of courtiers, and was surrounded by elaborate ceremonial. He seems to be the equivalent and was probably the direct descendant of the “Abbot” or “Bishop” of the Feast of Fools. Sometimes indeed he is actually called “Abbot of Misrule.” A parallel to him is the Twelfth Night “king,” and he appears to be a courtly example of the temporary monarch of folk-custom, though his name is sometimes extended to “kings” of quite vulgar origin elected not by court or gentry but by the common people. The “Lord of Misrule” was among the relics of paganism most violently attacked by Puritan writers like Stubbes and Prynne, and the Great Rebellion seems to have been the death of him.


Mummers’ Plays and Morris Dances

Let us turn now to the rustic Christmas mummers, today fast disappearing, but common enough in the mid-nineteenth century. Their goings-on are really far more interesting, because more traditional, than the elaborate shows and dressings-up of the court. Their names vary: “mummers” and “guisers” are the commonest; in Sussex they are “tipteerers,” perhaps because of the perquisites they collect, in Cornwall “geese-dancers” (“geese” no doubt comes from “disguise”), in Shropshire “morris”—or “merry”—“dancers.” It is to be noted that they are unbidden guests, and enter your house as of right. Sometimes they merely dance, sing, and feast, but commonly they perform a rude drama.

The plays acted by the mummers vary so much that it is difficult to describe them in general terms. There is no reason to suppose that the words are of great antiquity—the earliest form may perhaps date from the seventeenth century; they appear to be the result of a crude dramatic and literary instinct working upon the remains of traditional ritual, and manipulating it for purposes of entertainment. The central figure is St. George (occasionally he is called Sir, King, or Prince George), and the main dramatic substance, after a prologue and introduction of the characters, is a fight and the arrival of a doctor to bring back the slain to life. At the close comes a quête for money. The name George is found in all the Christmas plays, but the other characters have a bewildering variety of names ranging from Hector and Alexander to Bonaparte and Nelson.

Mr. Chambers in two very interesting and elaborately documented chapters has traced a connection between these St. George players and the sword-dancers found at Christmas or other festivals in Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Sweden, and Great Britain. The sword-dance in its simplest form is described by Tacitus in his “Germania”: “they have,” he says of the Germans, “but one kind of public show: in every gathering it is the same. Naked youths, who profess this sport, fling themselves in dance among swords and levelled lances.” In certain forms of the dance there are figures in which the swords are brought together on the heads of performers, or a pretence is made to cut at heads and feet, or the swords are put in a ring round a person's neck. This strongly suggests that an execution, probably a sacrifice, lies at the bottom of the dances. In several cases, moreover, they are accompanied by sets of verses containing the incident of a quarrel and the violent death of one of the performers. The likeness to the central feature of the St. George play—the slaying—will be noticed. In one of the dances, too, there is even a doctor who revives the victim.

In England the sword-dance is found chiefly in the north, but with it appear to be identical the morris-dances—characterized by the wearing of jingling bells—which are commoner in the southern counties. Blackened faces are common in both, and both have the same grotesque figures, a man and a woman, often called Tommy and Bessy in the sword-dance and “the fool” and Maid Marian in the morris. Moreover the morris-dancers in England sometimes use swords, and in one case the performers of an undoubted sword-dance were called “morrice” dancers in the eighteenth century. Bells too, so characteristic of the morris, are mentioned in some Continental accounts of the sword-dance.

Intermediate between these dances and the fully developed St. George dramas are the plays performed on Plough Monday in Lincolnshire and the East Midlands. They all contain a good deal of dancing, a violent death and a revival, and grotesques found both in the dances and in the Christmas plays.

The sword-dance thus passes by a gradual transition, the dancing diminishing, the dramatic elements increasing, into the mummers’ plays of St. George. The central motive, death and revival, Mr. Chambers regards as a symbol of the resurrection of the year or the spirit of vegetation, like the Thuringian custom of executing a “wild man” covered with leaves, whom a doctor brings to life again by bleeding. This piece of ritual has apparently been attracted to Christmas from an early feast of spring, and Plough Monday, when the East Midland plays take place, is just such an early spring feast. Again, in some places the St. George play is performed at Easter, a date alluded to in the title, “Pace-eggers’” or “Pasque-eggers’” play.

Two grotesque figures appear with varying degrees of clearness and with various names in the dances and in the plays—the “fool” (Tommy) who wears the skin and tail of a fox or other animal, and a man dressed in woman's clothes (Bessy). In these we may recognize the skin-clad mummer and the man aping a woman whom we meet in the old Kalends denunciations. Sometimes the two are combined, while a hobby-horse also not unfrequently appears.


How exactly St. George came to be the central figure of the Christmas plays is uncertain; possibly they may be a development of a dance in which appeared the “Seven Champions,” the English national heroes—of whom Richard Johnson wrote a history in 1596—with St. George at their head. It is more probable, however, that the saint came in from the mediaeval pageants held on his day in many English towns.

Can it be that the German St. Nicholas plays are more Christianized and sophisticated forms of folk-dramas like in origin to those we have been discussing? They certainly resemble the English plays in the manner in which one actor calls in another by name; while the grotesque figures introduced have some likeness to the “fool” of the morris.

Christmas mumming, it may be added, is found in eastern as well as western Europe. In Greece, where ecclesiastical condemnations of such things can be traced with remarkable clearness from early times to the twelfth century, it takes sundry forms. “At Pharsala,” writes Mr. J. C. Lawson, “there is a sort of play at the Epiphany, in which the mummers represent bride, bridegroom, and ‘Arab’; the Arab tries to carry off the bride, and the bridegroom defends her.... Formerly also at ‘Kozane and in many other parts of Greece,’ according to a Greek writer in the early part of the nineteenth century, throughout the Twelve Days boys carrying bells used to go round the houses, singing songs and having ‘one or more of their company dressed up with masks and bells and foxes’ brushes and other such things to give them a weird and monstrous look.’”

In Russia, too, mummers used to go about at Christmastide, visiting houses, dancing, and performing all kinds of antics. “Prominent parts were always played by human representatives of a goat and a bear. Some of the party would be disguised as ‘Lazaruses,’ that is, as blind beggars.” A certain number of the mummers were generally supposed to play the part of thieves anxious to break in. Readers of Tolstoy's “War and Peace” may remember a description of some such maskings in the year 1810.


# Christmas Pages Menu # The Queen's Christmas # Royal Celebrations
# Christmas Gifts # Christmas Festivities # Christmas Pudding
# Christmas Cards # Night Before Christmas # Christmas Masking
# Christmas Tree # Christmas Decorations # Yule Log

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