Just as Wassailing, Mumming is an ancient pagan custom too, and basically an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas. It means literally “making diversion in disguise” and the tradition was that men and women would swap clothes, put on masks and go visiting their neighbors, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a silly plot. Not by chance, the leader or narrator of the mummers was dressed as Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, if you prefer.
The custom of Mumming might go back to Roman times, when people used to dress up for parties at New Year and It is thought that, in the UK, it was first done on St. Thomas’s day or the shortest day of the year.
Different types of entertainments were in fact done in different parts of the UK, particularly in England. In parts of Durham, Yorkshire and Devon a special sword dance was performed and there were also different names for mumming around the UK too. In Scotland, for istance, it was known as “Gusards” or “Guising”, in Somerset “Mumping”, in Warwickshire “Thomasing” and “Corning” in Kent.
In any case, in Medieval times, it had turned into an excuse for people to go begging round the houses and committing crimes, and It became so bad that King Henry VIII, made a law saying that anyone that caught mumming wearing a mask would be put in prison for three months.
One poem that people said when mumming was:
“Christmas is coming, the beef is getting fat,
Please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.”
But, over the years, this was changed into a very similar poem that is said by some carol singers still today:
“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.”
The early settlers from the UK took the custom of Mumming to Canada, where It is known as “Murmuring”, despite it is banned in most places because people used it as an excuse for begging.
There’s also a famous Mummer’s Day parade New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, in the USA, which lasts over six hours.
Mumming is still done in parts of the UK, USA and Canada.