Mumming, or guising, is the practice of a group of people donning masks (and usually full costumes) to represent various wild and often threatening characters, walking through a town, and interacting with others. Sometimes the mummers collect money, sometimes they put on a play, sometimes they go door to door, sometimes they sing or dance. These customs have been documented throughout Europe over the centuries, and are still practiced in some areas today, as well as migrating over to North America in various forms.
TO DRIVE THE DARK AWAY
One of the primary purposes of mumming appears to be driving out the dangerous spirits of winter. This is why so many traditions happen during the darkest part of the year, usually around the winter solstice but as early as Halloween and as late as Candlemas in February. For the participants – and the community as a whole – these practices can provide a powerful means of catharsis.
There are also pockets of mumming that show up around the time of Carnival in early spring, and again at May Day (especially in Britain). These processions bring good luck, prosperity and fertility to the people and the land. They can be a fun way to create a sense of tradition and cohesiveness in the community.
A TYPOLOGY OF MUMMING
In the book Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, Herbert Halpert put forth the following “Typology of Mumming,” categorizing the various ways in which the practice can be carried out.
A 1. The Informal Visit
a) The house-visit (e.g., Newfoundland janneys)
b) The visitation by inquisitors (e.g., Eskimo ‘naluyuks,’ St. Nicholas and Black Peter)
c) The collectors’ performance (e.g., wren-boys, carolers, mayers, soulers)
A 2. The Visit with the Formal Performance
a) Renaissance dumb-show, masque
b) The dance (e.g., Sword Dance, Morris Dance)
c) The folk play (e.g., Sword Dance Play, Plough or Wooing Play, Hero-combat Play)
B 3. The Informal Outdoor Behaviour
a) Undirected wandering (e.g., general carnival behaviour)
b) Going from point to point (see A, 1, above)
B 4. The Formal Outdoor Movement
a) Groups moving to give performances at fixed points (e.g., dancers, players, etc.)
b) The dance procession or ‘running’ (e.g., the Helston Flora Dance or Furry Dance)
c) The formal procession (e.g., parades, pageants)
AN ANCIENT CUSTOM?
If the ‘pre-Christian religious ceremony’ theory of origin of calendar customs is correct, then ideally there would be records of them at all periods since pre-Christian times. On the whole such records do not exist, and the previous surveys of the ritual dance and drama produced little evidence before 1800. Therefore it becomes fashionable to discard the popular theory, to suppose that these customs are of comparatively recent origin, and to search for this origin in observably common characteristics of human behaviour. Nevertheless a few records do exist of various customs before 1800, brief and vague though they usually are, rather as if stage-hands had twitched aside the curtain while they adjusted the properties before the start of a play; it is impossible to tell what is about to happen, but clearly there is something afoot. In contrast to the dance and drama, there are records of animal disguise in every century since the thirteenth, in either Great Britain or France. The recent customs might therefore be expected to have lengthy pedigrees, but they seem to be so distinct from the events recorded earlier that the situation is much as before; it can only be guessed that there may be some connection between the recent customs and the older ones. And yet again, there is the painting of a tourney horse as part of a morris team at Richmond in the time of James I, the Abbots’ Bromley performance has a documented history since about 1630, hobby-horses appeared at Christmas in various years, and in processions, and in verse, the early Christian writers condemned animal disguise on the first of January, there must have been something going on.(E. C. Cawte, Ritual Animal Disguise)