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Mumming, an old Irish Christmas Tradition.

  • Nov 18, 2021
  • - 3 Minutes Read
  • - 506 Words

I am a curious person. Last year I read about an old Irish Christmas Tradition called Mumming. Creative Ireland and Leitrim County Council launched a project to revive this tradition to support the well-being of the elderly during the current pandemic.

I’ve never heard about Mumming; I knew something about Wren Boys or Straw Boys who used to parade through the villages carrying a pole decorated with a dead wren. On St Stephen’s Day, they called into country houses to dance, sing and play music.

Mumming is a house visiting tradition involving a group of friends or families who dress in disguise and visit their neighbours and community homes during the twelve days of Christmas.

The Mummers sing, dance, play music, tell stories and perform the mummers' play led by a captain or king. They are in disguise and wear stuffed costumes, cross-dresses and silly masks. They can also adjust the tone of their voices, all for tricking the hosts. The hosts must identify the mummers and are allowed to ask questions, poke and prod them.

Only when the guess is correct, the mummers can reveal themselves and spend some time with the hosts before they travel as a group to the next home.

It is believed that this tradition dates back as far as 2500 years in Ulster. The mummers’ play is considered the scene of the first folk theatre in Ireland.

The play is in verse, and the main characters are St. Patrick, St. George, Oliver Cromwell, Jack Straw, Beelzebub and the Doctor with his bag of cures and tricks. Usually, the theme is a battle between two heroes, the death and revival of one of them by the Doctor.

In Ireland today, there has been a revival of mumming in some areas such as County Fermanagh, County Tyrone, the Fingal area of County Dublin and notably in south County Wexford where the main characters are from Irish history: Colmcille, Brian Boru, Art MacMorrough, Owen Roe O’Neill, Sarsfield, Wolf Tone. Lord Edward, Lelly of Killane, Michael Dwyer, Robert Emmet and Fr. John Murphy.

Also, Wexford mumming differs from all others because, in their performance, there is an intricate sword dance performed by 12 players, each with a wooden sword.

Here are a few lines that are typically included in the Mummer’s Play:

Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey; give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
May your barns be filled with wheat and corn
And your hearts be always true.
A merry Christmas is our wish
Where’er we do appear;
To you a well-filled purse, a well-filled dish
And a happy, bright New Year.

I like this tradition because it shows a natural Irish trait: Irish are welcoming. On Christmas Season, they love to meet up with relatives and friends and talk, drink and eat. Christmas Parties starts in November and last all December long.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

About Author

… and if you can’t go to heaven, may you at least die in Ireland.

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