Archive for Mummery

The Ancient Art of Mummery – The Celts

Mummery, More than just a Christmas custom.
Definition: French mommerie, from Old French momer, to wear a mask, pantomime

Mummery has nothing to do with mummies or ancient Egypt as the name might imply. Mummery means to wear a mask and disguise and play a role or act in a certain traditional or ritual way. Mummery’s exact roots are lost in ancient history, but enough remains to piece together a coherent picture of its beginnings, which persist today, though in a radically different form. Most of us have seen or heard something of the fabulous “Mummers Parade” held annually in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What most people don’t realize is that it is originally a Celtic Tradition that has spread to all the continents of the world.

When the word Celtic is used, people inevitably think Irish. However, that is too limiting. The Ancient Celtic people were Indo-European. The Celtic people were not bound together by a central government, but rather each tribe was divided into clans. They were nomadic, but also territorial at times, where natural resources abounded.

The Celts’ last stronghold after the appearance of the Roman Empire was in England, Scotland and Ireland. They were never completely subdued by the Romans in Ireland. Hence, through Roman writing about their campaigns in Ireland, we have come to consider Celtic as Irish. That is doing the Celtic people a vast disservice.

The peak of Celtic influence was the 2nd Century B.C. It spread from Ireland to Spain, into Turkey, Italy and even Western Russia. The famous cities of London, Geneva, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Paris and Ankara all started out as Celtic cities named for their tribes.

The Celts introduced the use of iron to northern Europe, established the first common market and the first international court of arbitration.

They also gave us the art of mummery from which most drama and acting can trace their roots. Theatrical performance emerged during the Middle Ages first in the form of mumming plays, or plays done in mummer costumes. It had evolved from a ceremony and ritual into a play format.

Mummery is as old as man’s dream of escaping the drudgery of daily life and as old as imagination. Carnival has its roots in mummery. Carnival spread from Florence, Italy to South America to New Orleans and Mardi gras! All the ceremonies had the same basic purpose, to promote fertility or luck. Mummer plays were originally part of the old fertility rites performed in mid-winter and in the original Mayday festivals.

The idea was to celebrate and encourage the bringing of life back to the world. Mummer plays share many common elements, character and themes, which correlate with gods from older pagan religions before Christianity. For instance, they always have a cycle of death followed by a resurrection of magical or impossible means.

They were also used to allay fears that winter would never end. Again, part of the seasonal cycle of spring and rebirth and important stages in the agricultural year. Costumed mummers made calls on friends. They exchanged gifts, frequently the first sprouts of spring or evergreens in winter when all other vegetation was sparse. It was customary for some of the winter gifts to bring wishes for a happy and fertile New Year. You could say the first New Year’s celebrant was a mummer!

Because mumming was essentially a secret ritual, it was passed down orally, so much was lost. Performers didn’t want to set down their texts because of a superstitious belief that to do so would break their luck. Although Mummer plays still survive in scattered places and are eagerly anticipated by their audiences, their newer Christian nature has totally transformed their pagan beginning.

Costumes were traditionally made of natural fibers, and frequently had bells. It was important that the face was totally disguised. It was considered bad luck to be recognized, for then evil spirits could identify you. It was common to disguise oneself as a tree or a sheaf of wheat, or to dress in animal skins. The face was usually blackened or whitened and covered. A common feature was a group of dancing men with bells and camouflage. The bells brought luck by scaring away the evil spirits that abounded in pagan beliefs. The headdress was often tall and again covered with strips of fibers or material hanging down. Frequently there was a fringed or tiered effect. A feeling that the dances have magic powers or bring luck persists wherever they are traditionally performed. The disguise was not only to provide safety from spirits, but also to mark the dancers as beings set apart from their community.

These mumming customs are widespread throughout Europe and extend into the Middle East, India and Russia. Notable examples are the Perchten of Austria, the Moriscas or Morrisen dances, the Calusari of Romania, the Matachinas of the Mediterranean and the Santiagos of Spain. The Sword Dances of Russia are another form that evolved from mummery.

Contemporary references to mummery or mummers did not appear until the late 16th century. The earliest surviving written example of a mummers’ play is from 1596. Most scholars accept that the roots of the actions are paganistic. The plays had lost most of their pagan message aspects by then and shifted to more Christian themes, notably passion plays, but the basic rules remained.

Mummery crossed the Atlantic with the colonists. Immigrants and travelers brought these customs with them to America. Even during the Revolutionary War, New Year’s Day was celebrated as Carnival with parades and friendly calls upon neighbors while in disguise. British General Howe and his redcoats, while occupying the town of Wharton, New Jersey staged the “Meschianza” in the Wharton Mansion. George Washington continued the tradition after he was inaugurated in New York and moved to Philadelphia, (while Philadelphia was the Nation’s first capital) for the seven years he lived there. The tradition exists today in Philadelphia, though the form is greatly changed.

In the 1800’s the theatrical political parody and increasing use of blackface in mummery, offended the social leaders of the time. The parade and balls were declared a public nuisance and it was illegal to hold a masquerade ball in a home. They imposed fines and jail time of up to three months for lawbreakers. However, farmers, craftsmen, laborers and members of fire fighting companies continued to hold secret New Year’s Eve celebrations. Although the laws were on the books, no convictions were ever recorded. These colonists would shoot pistols and rifles as noisemakers, welcoming in the New Year. Gradually they became known as shooters and that term is still used today for mummers!

Continued throughout the centuries of American history, there is now a National Pageant that draws thousands to Philadelphia to see the Mummers “Strut their stuff” in a gigantic parade. Most spectators are unaware of its Celtic and pagan roots, or that George Washington celebrated it there before them. When the Swedes came to Tinicum, just outside Philadelphia’s town limits (but now encompassed by them) they brought their custom of visiting friends on “Second Day Christmas”, December 26th long before William Penn arrived in the good ship “Welcome” and established Pennsylvania as one of the original 13 colonies and Philadelphia as the “City of Brotherly Love”.

Music: “The Mummers’ Dance” by Loreena McKennitt. “The Book of Secrets” For more information about Loreena McKennitt visit her official web site at http://www.quinlanroad.com

Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article: England, Performing arts, 2000 edition

Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article: Morris Dance, 2000 edition

Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article : Mumming Play, 2000 edition

Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article: Theatre, History of Medieval Theatre, 2000 edition

Bulik, Markus, “Strawmen and Beastie Boys”, Smithsonian Magazine, Sept. 1999, Volume 30, #6 pp 122-127

Eno, Grace, “Ancient Celts in Today’s World”,

Online, http://www.celt.drak.net/mysticzine/celtic1.htm

Isca Morrismen, “Historical Background”

Online, http://homepage.virgin.net/les.chittleburg/historic.htm

Mummers Magazine, “The Ancient Custom of Mummery” reprinted online by the Fontana Mummers, Inc. http://eint.com/mummers/history.htm

Leave a comment »