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The Mummers in the Celtic Countries

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The Mummers

While the origin of the mummers remains unclear, they were still a vital part of Irish tradition up to the present century. Much like the 'wren boys,' and 'straw boys,' they went from house to house on St. Stephen's Day (December 26th) or during the long winter days providing entertainment.

What distingusishes them, however, is that they performed plays, as opposed to just music or general entertainment. The 'wren boys' wore any disguise that was at hand and only performed on St. Stephens' Day to 'hunt the ran.'

Play Accompanying Music

Click here to hear "The Mummers March" available on the CD "To Warm the Winter's Night" here, or as a single MP3 download on "Celtic Christmas Music 2" (track #7) here

Mummers often performed plays dressed in disguise, often using straw to cover their faces, and went from door to door. They usually requested and received food or money or some token of gratitude for their "performance." This tradition was particularly strong in parts of Kerry.

The 'straw boys,' whose disguise is very similar to the mummers, might perform at wakes and funerals. This tradition died out almost entirely, however, it is starting to come back into fashion and is considered great fun for a returning honeymooning couple to be met by straw boys! That said, the straw boys do not perform 'plays,'

The Mummers are led by a captain and plays are their stock in trade. The 'Captain' announces their arrival and after a tune a "Mummers Play' is performed for all assembled. The Captain even asks for permission, an unlikely event in the case of wrenboys or strawboys!

These Mummers Plays would have been the first 'folk theater in Ireland and indeed England. There were four primary characters and to some degree they were interchangable depending on locality. In England, St. Patrick would have been replaced by St. George. There is usually a doctor and a fool in addition to the saint. Someone dies and is brought back to life by the 'doctor.' This death and resurrection is thought to symbolizs the death of the old year and the rebirth of the sun for the new year.

Essentially, there was a death and resurrection, and none of it was taken too seriously and it's possible that it reflected the death and rebirth of the old and new year.

What's perhaps more interesting it the way it changed to reflect the needs and characters of the locality, the changing times both politically and religiously; the idea of 'permission' to perform being sought at the outset, the the renumeration being given after the fact in the form of food drink and/or coin is an interesting look at the entire interplay and transaction. And, in a world where the transaction for the arts is rapidly changing, it provides an interesting study!

It's also interesting to note that this was really Ireland's first 'theater.'

To mask and to mum kind neighbors will come
With wassails of nut-brown ale,
To drink and carouse to all in the house
As merry as bucks in the dale;
Where cake, bread, and cheese are brought for your fees
To make you the longer stay;
At the fire to warm 'twill do you no harm,
To drive the cold winter away.

from "To Drive the Cold Winter Away"

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