24th December (part 2)

The Mummers

The mummers, or, as they are styled in Scotland, the guisers or guizards, occupied a prominent place in the Christmas revels of the olden time, and their performances, though falling, like the other old customs of the season, into desuetude, are still kept up in several parts of the country. The passion for masquerade, like that for dramatic representation, seems an inherent one in human nature; and though social progress and fashion may modify and vary the peculiar mode of development, the tendency itself remains unaltered, and only adopts from age to age a new, and, it may be, more intellectual phase. Thus the rude and irreverent mysteries and miracle plays which delighted our ancestors, have been succeeded in the gradual course of improvement by the elaborate stage mechanism and display of our own times; and the coarse drolleries which characterized the old Christmas festivities, have made way for the games and charades, and other refined amusements of modern drawing-rooms. But in all these changes we oily find an expression under altered and diversified forms of certain essential feelings and tendencies in the constitution of humanity.

Looking back to the Roman Saturnalia, from which so many of our Christmas usages are derived, we find that the practice of masquerading was greatly in vogue at that season among the people of Rome, men and women assumed respectively the attire of the opposite sex, and masks of all kinds were worn in abundance. The early Christians, we are informed, used, on the Feast of the Circumcision or New-year's Day, to run about in masks in ridicule of the pagan superstitions; but there can be no doubt that they also frequently shared in the frolics of their heathen neighbors, and the fathers of the church had considerable difficulty in prevailing on their members to refrain from such unedifying pastimes. Afterwards, the clergy endeavored to metamorphose the heathen revels into amusements, which, if not really more spiritual in character than those which they supplanted, had at least the merit of bearing reference to the observances, and recognizing the authority of the church and its ministers. The mysteries or miracle plays in which even the clergy occasionally took part as performers, were the results, amid numerous others, of this policy. These singular dramas continued for many centuries to form a favorite amusement of the populace, both at Christmas and other seasons of the year; and in the first volume of this work will be found an account of the celebration of the Whitsuntide mysteries at Chester. The Christmas mumming was in many respects a kindred diversion, though it appears to have partaken less of the religious element, and resembled more nearly those medieval pageants in which certain subjects and characters, taken from pagan mythology or popular legends, were represented. Frequently, also, it assumed very much the nature of a masquerade, when the sole object of the actors is to disguise themselves, and excite alternately laughter and admiration by the splendid or ridiculous costumes in which they are arrayed.

The term mummer is synonymous with masker, and is derived from the Danish, mumme, or Dutch, momme. The custom of mumming at the present day, such as it is, prevails only at the Christmas season, the favourite and commencing night for the pastime being generally Christmas Eve. Formerly, however, it seems to have been practiced also at other times throughout the year, and Stow, in his Survey of London, has preserved to us an account of a splendid 'mummerie,' which, in 1377, was performed shortly before Candlemas by the citizens of London, for the amusement of Prince Richard, son of the Black Prince, and afterward the unfortunate monarch Richard II.

In the year 1400, we are informed that Henry IV, holding his Christmas at Eltham, was visited by twelve aldermen and their sons as mummers, and that these august personages 'had great thanks' from his majesty for their performance. But shortly afterwards, as Fabyan tells us, a conspiracy to murder the king was organized under the guise of a Twelfth-night mumming. The plot was discovered only a few hours before the time of putting it in execution. Henry VIII, who ruthlessly demolished so many ancient institutions, issued an ordinance against mumming or guising, declaring all persons who went about to great houses arrayed in this fashion, liable to be arrested as vagabonds, committed to jail for three months, and fined at the king's pleasure. The reason assigned for this edict, is the number of murders and other felonies which have arisen from this cause. But we hear of no permanent or serious check sustained by the mummers in consequence.

In the tract, Round about our Coal-fire, or Christmas Entertainments, already quoted, the following passage occurs in reference to the practice of mumming at a comparatively recent period: 'Then comes mumming or 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-moustaches, and every one in the family, except the squire himself, must be transformed. 'And in further illustration of an old English pastime, the subjoined verses on mumming, in the characteristic form of the madrigal, from La Musa Madrigalesca, may here be introduced:

To shorten winter's sadness,
See where the folks with gladness
Disguised all are coming,
Right wantonly a-mumming.
Fa la.
Whilst youthful sports are lasting,
To feasting turn our fasting;
With revels and with wassails,
Make grief and care our vassals.
Fa la.
For youth it well beseemeth,
That pleasure he esteemeth;
And sullen age is hated,
That mirth would have abated.
Fa la.

The grand and special performance of the mummers from time immemorial, has been the representation of a species of drama, which embodies the time-honoured legend of St. George and the dragon, with sundry whimsical adjuncts, which contribute to give the whole affair an aspect of 'very tragical mirth.' The actors, chiefly young lads, having arrayed themselves in the costumes proper to the allegorical characters which they are to support, sally forth in company on Christmas Eve, to commence their round of visits to the houses of the principal inhabitants of the parish. Arriving at the first residence in their way, they knock at the door, and claim the privilege of Christmas in the admission of St. George and his 'merrymen.'

A Party of Mummers

The engraving delineates a motley group on such an occasion as we are describing. First is seen Old Father Christmas, bearing, as emblematic devices, the holly bough, wassail-bowl, &c. Beside him stands a pretty little girl, carrying a branch of mistletoe. Then come the Grand Turk, the gallant knight, St. George, and the latter's antagonist, the devouring dragon. A doctor is also present with a large box of pills to cure the wounded. Drums and other music accompany the procession, which, moreover, in the above engraving is represented as accompanied by the parish-beadle, whose command of the stocks, in days gone by, rendered him a terror to evil-doers, and insured the maintenance of order and decorum.

The institution of the mummers, as already intimated, is one that has considerably declined, but it still flourishes in some of the remoter districts of England. As regards the guisers in Scotland, where the festivities of the winter-season cluster chiefly around the New Year, we shall have occasion to make special reference to them under the 31st of December.

In conclusion, we present our readers with a specimen of the mumming-drama, as exhibited at the present day at Tenby, in South Wales. At this town, for three weeks at the Christmas season, the mummers are accustomed to go their rounds, mostly three in company, in a quaint guise, when every house is visited by them, and leave to enter requested. Upon being admitted, they commence the performance of the following drama, which has already been printed in Tales and Traditions of Tenby. As each of the three represents various characters, they shall be designated Nos. 1, 2, and 3.

No. 1.

Here come I,
Old Father Christmas,
Christmas or not,
I hope Old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.
A room-make room here, gallant boys,
And give us room to rhyme,
We're come to shew activity
Upon a Christmas time.
Acting youth or acting age,
The like was never acted on this stage;
If you don't believe what I now say,
Enter St George, and clear the way.'

No. 2.

Here come I,
St George, the valiant man,
With naked sword and spear in hand,
Who fought the dragon, and brought him to the slaughter,
And for this won the king of Egypt's daughter.
What man or mortal will dare to stand
Before me with my sword in hand;
I'll slay him, and cut him as small as flies,
And send him to Jamaica to make mince-pies.

St. George's challenges is taken up, for says No. 3

Here come I, a Turkish knight,
In Turkish land I learned to fight,
I'll fight St George with courage bold,
And if his blood's hot, will make it cold.

To this rejoins No. 2, who says:

If thou art a Turkish knight,
Draw out thy sword, and let us fight.

A battle is the result; the Turk falls, and St George, struck with remorse, exclaims:

Ladies and gentlemen,
You've seen what I've done,
I've cut this Turk down
Like the evening sun;
Is there any doctor that can be found,
To cure this knight of his deadly wound?

No. 1 re-enters, metamorphosed

Here come I, a doctor,
A ten-pound doctor;
I've a little bottle in my pocket,
Called hokum, shokum, alicampane;
I'll touch his eyes, nose, mouth, and chin,
And say: 'Rise, dead man,' and he'll fight again.

After touching the prostrate Turk, the latter leaps up, ready again for the battle. St George, how-ever, thinks this to be a favourable opportunity for sounding his own praises, and rejoins:

Here am I, St George, with shining armour bright,
I am a famous champion, also a worthy knight;
Seven long years in a close cave was kept,
And out of that into a prison leaped,
From out of that into a rock of stones,
There I laid down my grievous bones.
Many a giant did I subdue,
And ran a fiery dragon through.
I fought the man of Tillotree,
And still will gain the victory.
First, then, I fought in France,
Second, 1 fought in Spain,
Thirdly, I came to Tenby,
To fight the Turk again.

A fight ensues, and St George, being again victor, repeats his request for a doctor, who succeeds, as before, in performing a miraculous cure, and at once comes forward as the Protector:

Here come I, Oliver Cromwell,
As you may suppose,
Many nations I have conquered,
With my copper nose.
I made the French to tremble,
And the Spanish for to quake,
I fought the jolly Dutchmen,
And made their hearts to ache.

No. 2 then changes his character into that of the 'gentleman in black.'

Here come I, Beelzebub,
Under my arm I carry a club,
Under my chin I carry a pan,
Don't I look a nice young man?

Having finished his speech, the main object of the visit is thus delicately hinted by No. 3:

Ladies and gentlemen,
Our story is ended,
Our money-box is recommended;
Five or six shillings will not do us harm,
Silver, or copper, or gold if you can.

After this appeal has been responded to, St George, the Turk, Doctor, Oliver Cromwell, and Beelzebub, take their departure, and the 'guising' is at an end.

Lord of Misrule

The functionary with the above whimsical title played an important part in the festivities of Christmas in the olden time. His duties were to lead and direct the multifarious revels of the season, or, as we should say at the present day, to act as Master of the Ceremonies. The following account of him is given by Stow:

In the feast of Christmas, there was in the king's house, wheresoever he lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Master of Merry Disports, and the like had ye in the house of every nobleman of honour or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal. The Mayor of London, and either of the Sheriffs, had their several Lords of Misrule, ever contending, without quarrel or offence, who should make the rarest pastime to delight the beholders. These lords beginning their rule at Allhallond Eve, continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas Day, in which space there were fine and subtle disguising, masks and mummeries, with playing at cards for counters, nayles and points, in every house, more for pastimes than for game.
the Lord of Misrule

In the university of Cambridge, the functions of the Lord of Misrule were performed by one of the Masters of Arts, who was regularly elected to super-intend the annual representation of Latin plays by the students, besides taking a general charge of their games and diversions during the Christmas season, and was styled the Imperator or Praefectus Ludorum. A similar Master of Revels was chosen at Oxford. But it seems to have been in the Inns of Court in London that the Lord of Misrule reigned with the greatest splendor, being surrounded with all the parade and ceremony of royalty, having his lord-keeper and treasurer, his guard of honour, and even his two chaplains, who preached before him on Sunday in the Temple Church. On Twelfth Day, he abdicated his sovereignty, and we are informed that in the year 1635, this mock-representative of royalty expended in the exercise of his office about two thousand pounds from his own purse, and at the conclusion of his reign was knighted by Charles I at Whitehall. The office, indeed, seems to have been regarded among the Templars as a highly-honourable one, and to have been generally conferred on young gentlemen of good family.

The following is an extract from the 'articles' drawn up by the Right Worshipful Richard Evelyn, Esq, father of the author of the Diary, and deputy-lieutenant of the counties of Surrey and Sussex, for appointing and defining the functions of a Christmas Lord of Misrule over his estate at Wotton:

Imprimis, I give free leave to Owen Flood, my trumpeter, gentleman, to be Lord of Misrule of all good orders during the twelve days. And also, I give free leave to the said Owen Flood to command all and every person or persons whatsoever, as well servants as others, to be at his command whensoever he shall sound his trumpet or music, and to do him good service, as though I were present myself, at their perils I give full power and authority to his lordship to break up all locks, bolts, bars, doors, and latches, and to fling up all doors out of hinges, to come at those who presume to disobey his lordship's commands. God save the king!

In the accompanying engraving, one of these Lords of Misrule is shewn with a fool's bauble as his badge of office, and a page, who acts as his assistant or confederate in conducting the jocularities. We are informed that a favourite mode for his lordship to enter on the duties of his office was by explaining to the company that he absolved them of all their wisdom, and that they were to be just wise enough to make fools of themselves. No one was to sit apart in pride or self-sufficiency, to laugh at others. Moreover, he (the Lord of Misrule) came endowed with a magic power to turn all his auditory into children, and that, while his sovereignty lasted, he should take care that they conducted themselves as such. So fealty was sworn to the 'merry monarch,' and the reign of fun and folly forthwith commenced. In the pantomime of the present day, we see in the mischievous pranks of the Clown, who parodies all the ordinary occupations of grave and serious life, a reproduction under a modern form of the extravagances of the Lord of Misrule.

There can be no doubt that scandalous abuses often resulted from the exuberant license assumed by the Lord of Misrule and his satellites. It need, therefore, occasion no surprise to find their proceedings denounced in no measured terms by Prynne and other zealous Puritans. 'If,' says the author of the Histrio-Mastix, 'we compare our Bacchanalian Christmasses and New-year's Tides with these Saturnalia and Feasts of Janus, we shall find such near affinitye betweene them both in regard of time (they being both in the end of December and on the first of January) and in their manner of solemnising (both of them being spent in revelling, epicurisme, wantonesse, idlenesse, dancing, drinking, stage-plaies, masques, and carnall pompe and jollity), that we must needes conclude the one to be but the very ape or issue of the other. Hence Polydore Virgil affirmes in express tearmes that our Christmas Lords of Misrule (which custom, saith he, is chiefly observed in England), together with dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplayes, and such other Christmass disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalia and Bacchanalian festivals; which (concludes he) should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.'

In Scotland, previous to the Reformation, the monasteries used to elect a functionary of a similar character, for the superintendence of the Christmas revels, under the designation of the Abbot of Unreason. The readers of the Waverley Novels will recollect the graphic delineation of one of these mock-ecclesiastics in The Abbot. An ordinance for suppressing this annual burlesque, with other festivities of a like kind, was passed by the Scottish legislature in 1555. In France, we find the congener of the Lord of Misrule and the Abbet of Unreason in the Abbas Stultorum-the Abbot or Pope of Fools.

The Waits

It is a curious circumstance, that no one appears clearly to know whether the term Waits denoted originally musical instruments, a particular kind of music, or the persons who played under certain special circumstances. There is evidence in support of all these views. At one time, the name of Waits was given to minstrels attached to the king's court, whose duty it was to guard the streets at night, and proclaim the hour-something in the same manner as the watchmen were wont to do in London before the establishment of the metropolitan police. A regular company of waits was established at Exeter as early as the year 1400, and in relation to the duties and emoluments of such personages in the reign of Edward IV, the following curious account is furnished by Rymer:

A wayte, that nightelye from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipethe the watche withers this courte lower tymes; in the somere nyghtes iij tymes, and makethe bon gayte at every chambere-dore and offyce, as well or feare of pyckeres and pillers. He eateth in the halle with mynstrielles, and takethe lyverye [allowance] at nyghte a loffe, a galone of alle, and for somere ryghtes ij candles pich, a bushel of coles; and for wintere nyghtes half a loafe of bread, a galone of alle, iiij candles piche, a bushel of coles; daylye whilste he is presente in courte for his wages in cheque roale allowed iiijd. ob. or else iijd. by the discreshon of the steuarde and tressorere, and that, aftere his cominge and diservinge; also clotthinge with the household yeomen or mynstrielles lyke to the wages that he takethe; and if he be syke he takethe twoe loves, ij messe of great meate, one gallon of alle. Also he parteth with the housholde of general gyfts, and hathe his beddinge carried by the comptrollers assygment; and under this yeoman to be a groome watere. Yf he can excuse the yeoman in his absence, then he takethe rewarde, clotheinge, meat, and all other things lyke to other grooms of houshold. Also this yeoman waight, at the makinge of Knyghtes of the Bath, for his attendance upon them by nyghte-time, in watchinge in the chappelle, hath he to his fee all the watchinge clothing that the knyght shall wear upon him.

This statement is interesting, as it shews that the Wait, or Yeoman-wait, at court was a kind of page, paid partly in money and partly in baud-wages; and it may be a fair question whether the yeoman-waiter of later days is not to be traced to some such origin.

In Mr. Thorns's edition of The famous History of Dr. Faustus, the term under notice is clearly applied to a musical instrument:

Lastly was heard by Faustus all manner of instruments of music-as organs, clarigolds, lutes, viols, citterns, waits, horn-pipes, anomes, harps, and all manner of other instruments of music.

Butler, also, in his Principles of Musick, published in 1636, mentions 'the waits or hoboys'-implying that that which was called the waits or wayghtes, was the same instrument as the one long known as the hoboy, hautboy, hautbois, or oboe. Some trace the name wait to the German wacht, which signifies a watchman or night-guard; a meaning not necessarily connected with music in any way. Dr. Rimbault states that, in a roll of officers in the service of Henry VII, one of the entries is 'Musicians for the Wayghtes.'

Dr. Busby, in his Musical Dictionary, speaking of the waits, says:

This noun formerly signified hautboys, and (which is remarkable) has no singular number. From the instruments, its signification was, after a time, transferred to the performers themselves; who, being in the habit of parading the streets at night with their music, occasioned the name to be applied generally to all musicians who followed a similar practice.

In the following extract from a communication to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1756, describing the mode of constituting freemen at Alnwick, the waits are distinctly spoken of as persons. After describing certain ridiculous ceremonies, the writer proceeds to say:

They [the freemen in prospect] are generally met by women dressed up with ribbons, bells, and garlands of gum-flowers, who welcome them with dancing and singing, and are called timber-waits-perhaps a corruption of timbrelwaits, players on timbrels.

Mr. H. Coleridge also has expressed a belief that the original waits werewind-instrument players, as shewn by the use of the word in the romances of Kyng Alysaunder and Sir Eglamour.

A writer in Notes and Queries draws attention to the analogy between the words waits and waith, the latter of which, in Scotland, means wandering or roaming about from place to place. Such wanderers were the minstrels of Scotland, who, three centuries ago, were under the patronage of the civic corporation of Glasgow, and at the city's expense were clothed in blue coats or outer garments.

A remnant of this custom, still popularly called waits, yet exists in the magistrates annually granting a kind of certificate or diploma to a few musicians, generally blind men of respectable character, who perambulate the streets of the city during the night and morning, for about three weeks or a month previous to New-year's Day, in most cases performing on violins the slow, soothing airs peculiar to a portion of the old Scottish melodies; and in the solemn silence of repose the effect is very fine. At the commencement of the New-year, these men call at the houses of the inhabitants, and, presenting their credentials, receive a small subscription.

It is evident that considerable confusion prevails on the subject of the waits, but if we abide by the modern meaning of the term, we shall find that it refers exclusively to a company of musicians whose performances bear a special relation to the season of Christmas. In Scotland, perhaps, they are more associated with the New Year, but in England their functions belong certainly to a period which ends with Christmas-day.

When the waits became town-musicians, instead of court-pages, they were sometimes civic servants, employed as watchmen to call the hour at night, sometimes serenaders or nocturnal minstrels, who looked for a living from private liberality. There is a paper in the Tatler (No. 222), which speaks of waits as they were a century and a half ago, and introduces the subject in the following manner:

Whereas, by letters from Nottingham, we have advice that the young ladies of that place complain for want of sleep, by reason of certain riotous lovers, who for this last summer have very much infested the streets of that eminent city with violins and bass-viols, between the hours of twelve and four in the morning;

With more to the same purport. It then proceeds to state that the same practice existed in other towns, and accounts for it thus:

For as the custom prevails at present, there is scarce a young man of any fashion in a corporation who does not make love with the town music; the waits often help him through his courtship.

At present, and in London, the waits are musicians who play during the night-hours for two or three weeks before Christmas, terminating their performances usually on Christmas Eve. They use generally wind-instruments, and play any tunes which happen to be popular at the time. They call at the houses of the inhabitants soon afterwards for Christmas donations.

Down to the year 1820, perhaps later, the waits had a certain degree of official recognition in the cities of London and Westminster. In London, the post was purchased; in Westminster, it was an appointment under the control of the High Constable and the Court of Burgesses. A police inquiry about Christmas-time, in that year, brought the matter in a singular way under public notice. Mr. Clay had been the official leader of the waits for Westminster; and on his death, Mr. Monro obtained the post. Having employed a number of persons in different parts of the city and liberties of Westminster to serenade the inhabitants, trusting to their liberality at Christmas as a remuneration, he was surprised to find that other persons were, unauthorized, assuming the right of playing at night, and making applications to the inhabitants for Christmas-boxes. Sir R. Baker, the police magistrate, promised to aid Mar Monro in the assertion of his claims; and the result, in several police cases, shewed that there really was this vested right to charm the ears of the citizens of Westminster with nocturnal music. At present (as stated in the last paragraph), there is nothing to prevent any number of such itinerant minstrels from plying their midnight calling.