The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 427-29

Mumming is a Christmas sport, which consists in changing clothes between men and women who, when dressed in each other’s habits, go front one neighbour’s house to another, partaking of Christmas cheer, and making merry with them in disguise. Mumming is supposed to have been originally instituted in imitation of the Sigillaria, or festival days, added to the ancient Saturnalia, and condemned by the Synod of Trullus (Thurles), where it was decreed that the days called the Calends should be entirely stripped of their ceremonies, and that the faithful should no longer observe them, that the public dancing of women should cease, as being the occasion of much harm and ruin, and as being invented and observed in honour of the gods of the heathens, and therefore quite averse to the Christian life. They therefore decreed that no man should be clothed with a woman’s garment, nor any woman with a man’s. The same prohibition was published by the Council which met at Constantinople in 690-1, in its 62nd Canon. "The disguisyng and mummyng that is used in Christemastyme," Langley observes in his synopsis of Polydore Virgil, "in the Northe partes came out of the feastes of Pallas, that were done with visars and painted visages, named Quinqatria of the Rornaynes."

Aubanus, speaking of mumming in Germany, says, that in the ancient Saturnalia there were frequent and luxurious feastings amongst friends: presents were mutually sent, and changes of dress made: that Christians have adopted the same customs, which continue to be used from the Nativity to the Epiphany: that exchanges of dress too, as of old among the Romans, are common, and neighbours by mutual invitations visit each other in the manner which the Germans call mummery. He adds that, as the heathens had their Saturnalia in December, their Sigillaria in January, and the Lupercalia and Bacchanalia in February, so, amongst Christians, these three months are devoted to feastings and revellings of every kind. He speaks of the sort of mummery practiced in his time and before by the youth, who put on the forms of rams, and in that shape ran about molesting passengers and others. He seems disposed to identify this custom with that described by other writers, in which a stag, instead of a ram, used to be counterfeited in the same way. Bishop Faustinus in his sermon for the Kalends of January, asks whether any sensible person can credit, that people in their right minds could be found so silly as to put on the likeness of a deer, while others dressed themselves in the hides of cattle, others wore the heads of beasts, and transformed themselves so that they ceased to look like human beings. Thus was not peculiar to the Continent, but appears to have been practiced among us formerly on more than one of the merry-makings ingrafted on the original holy feasts of the early Christian Church. "Glossarium Suio-Gothicum," 1760, v. Jul.; Du Cange "Gloss." Art. Pelota,

Pr. Johnson was disposed to look on these extravagances as a probable vestige of the Festival of Fools. It appears from Henry (" History of Britain," vol. iv. p. 602) that "in the year 1348, eighty tunics of buckram, forty-two visors, and a great variety of other whimsical dresses, were provided for the disguising at court at the feast of Christmas." Stow has preserved an account of a remarkable mummery made in 1377 by the citizens of London for the amusement of the son of the Black Prince:

"On the Sunday before Candlemas, in the night, one hundred and thirty citizens, disguised, and well horsed, in a mummerie, with sound of trumpets, sackbuts, comets, shalmes and other minstrels, and innumerable torch-lights of waxe, rode to Kennington, beside Lambeth, where the young Prince remayned with his mother. In the first rank did ride forty-eight in likeness and habit of esquires, two and two together, clothed in red coats, and gowns of say, or sandall, with comely visors on their faces. After them came forty-eight knights, in the same livery. Then followed one richly arrayed, like an emperour: and after him some distance, one stately tyred, like a pope, whom followed twenty-four cardinals; and, after them, eight or ten with black visors, not amiable, as if they had been legates from some forrain princes. These maskers, after they had entered the mannor of Kennington, alighted from their horses and enter’d the hall on foot; which done, the Prince, his mother, and the Lords, came out of the chamber into the hall, whom the mummers did salute; shewing, by a paire of dice upon the table, their desire to play with the young prince, whnch they so, handled, that the Prince did alwaies winne when he cast them. Then the mummers set to the Prince three jewels, one after another; which were, a boule of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the Prince wanne at three casts. Then they set to the Princes Mother, the Duke, the Earles, and other lords, to every one a ring of gold, when they did also win. After which they were feasted, and the musick sounded, the Prince and lords daunced on the one part with the mummers, which did also dance; which jollitie being ended, they were again made to drink, and then departed in order as they came." "The like," he says, "was to King Henry the Fourth, in the second year of his reign, hee then keeping his Christmas at Eltham; twelve aldermen of London and their sonnes rode a mnmming and had great thanks." Survey, 1603, p. 97.

We read of another mumming in Henry IV.’s time in Fabyan: "In whiche passe tyme the Dukys of Amnarle, of Surrey, and of Excetyr, with the Erlys of Salesbury and of Gloucetyr, with other of their affynyte, made provysion for a dysguysynge or a mummnynge, to be shewyd to the Kyage upon Twelfethe Nyght, and the tyme was nere at hande, and all thynge redy for the same. Upon the sayd Twelfthe Day, came secretlye unto the Kynge the Duke of Amnarle, and shewyd to hym, that he, wyth the other Lordys aforenamyd, were appoynted to sle hym in the tyme of the fore sayd disguysyuge." So that this mumming, it should seem, had like to have proved a very serious jest. Chronicle, 1516, fol. 169. In the "Paston Letters," in a letter dated Dec. 24th, 1484, we read that Lady Morley, on account of the death of her lord, July 23, directing what sports were to be used in her house at Christmas, ordered that "there were none disguisings, nor harping, nor luting, nor singing; nor none loud disports; but playing at the tables, and chess, and cards; such disports she gave her folks leave to play, and none other."

Northbrooke observes: "In the reign of King Henrie the eyght (An. 3. H. Viii.) it was ordeyned, that if anye persons did disguise themselues in apparel, and couer their faces with visors, gathering a cornpanye togither, naming themselues mummers, which vse to come to the dwelling-places of men of honoor, and other substantiall persons, whereupon murders, felonie, rape, and other great hurts and inconueniencies haue aforetime growen and hereafter bee like to come, by the colour thereof, if the said disorder should continue not reformed, &c.: that then they shoulde be arrested by the King’s liege people as vagabondes, and bee committed to the gaole without bayle or mainprise, for the space of three monethes and to fine at the King’s pleasure: and euery one that keepeth anye visors in his house, to forfeyte xxs." Treatise against Dicing 1577, repr. 1843.

In Lodge’s Wits Miserie, 1596, is the following passage: "I thinke in no time Jerome had better cause to crie out on pride then in this, for painting, now-a-daies, is growne to sueh a custome, that from the swartfaste devil in the kitchin to the fairest damsel in the cittie, the most part looks like wizards for a Momerie, rather then Christians trained in sobrietie.’’ In the interlude of the " Marriage of Wit and Wisdom," Idleness says:

"—Now I have never a crose to blesse me,
    Now I go a-mumming,
Like a poore pennilesse spirit,
    Without pipe or druming !"

In a former passage, Snatch says

"Where I lay last night, I stole away a sheete :
We will take this and tie it to his hed,
And soe we will blind him;
And sirra, I charge you, when you here
        Any body comming,
If they aske you any question, say you goe

The following is from Aubrey’s "Collections for North Wilts," 1678: "Heretofore noblemen and gentlemen of fair estates had their heralds, who wore their coat of arms at Christmas, and at other solemn times, and cried largesse thrice . . . . In days of yore lords and gentlemen lived in the country like petty kings . . . . They always eat in Gothick halls, at the high table or oreille (oriel) . . . . Here in the hall, the mumming and loaf-stealing, and other Christmas sports, were performed." Edit. 1859, 40.

In "Round about our Coal Fire," (circa 1730) I find the following: "Then comes mumming and masquerading, when the squire’s wardrobe is ransacked for dresses of all kinds. Corks are burnt to black the faces of the fair, or make deputy mustacios, and every one in the family, except the squire himself, must be transformed."

At Tiverton, in Devon, a custom, probably dating from 1660, prevailed formerly of forming a procession of young men, dressed in the old fashion and armed with swords, for the purpose of levying blackmail on the inhabitants. It was headed by a sort of Merry-Andrew, called Master Oliver, who was pelted by the boys, the latter taking care not to let him catch them. There was a feast in the evening.

Mr. Brand once saw in a printing office at Newcastle-upon-Tyne several carols for this season; for the Nativity, St. Stephen’s Day, Childermas Day, &c., with Alexander and the King of Egypt, a mock play, usually acted about this time, by mummers. The conclusion of this bombastic play is in my Collection of Proverbs, 1882:

"Bounce, Buckram, velvet’s dear;
Christmas comes but once a year:
Amid when it comes, it brings good cheer: -
But when it’s gone, it’s never the near.’’

"Bounce, Buckram," &c., seems to intimate an inability on the part of the bouncers or mummers to afford velvet and their adoption of the cheaper material. Shakespear may have had the latter in his mind when he attired in buckram the imaginary antagonists of Falstaff (Henry IV’. part 1, ii, 4). Brand’s reflections that follow are equally new and excellent: the "carpe diem" of Horace is included in them, and, if I mistake not, the good advice is seldom thrown away. Subjoined is a Somersetshire mummer’s song:

"Here comes I, liddle man Jan,
With my zword in my han!
If you don’t all do,
    As you be told by I,
I’ll zend you all to York,
    Vor to make apple-pie."

Mr. Halliwell, "Illustrations of Early English Literature," 1849, has printed "A Christmas Play, Performed by the Derbyshire Mummers," which does not appear to contain anything worth extracting. A version of this, said to be current in Worcestershire, may be found in "Notes and Queries," 2nd S. xi., 271. It is to be apprehended, however, that the old rural practice is degenerating into a piece of doggerel recitative supplied by metropolitan caterers.

Johnson tells us in his "Journey to the Western Islands," that a gentleman informed him of what he (Johnson) considered to be an odd game: At New Year’s Eve, in the hall or castle of the laird, where at festal seasons there may be supposed a very numerous company one man dresses himself in a cow’s hide, upon which other men beat with sticks. He runs with all this noise round the house, which all the company quits in a counterfeited fright; the door is then shut. At New Year’s Eve, there is no great pleasure to be had out of doors in the Hebrides. They are sure soon to recover from their terror enough to solicit for re-admission: which, for the honour of poetry, is not to be obtained but by repeating a verse, with which those that are knowing and provident take care to be furnished. The learned traveller tells us that they who played at this odd game, gave no account of the origin of it, and that he described it as it might perhaps be used in other places, where the reason of it is not yet forgotten.

See also Christmas Mummers, The Custom Of Mumming - Henry Vizetelly, and The Christmas Masque from Washington Irving.

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