Long before Santa, Bing Crosby and the Mattel Toy Company stole the occasion, even before Christianity itself kidnapped it, the Winter Solstice was celebrated with seasonal ritual. One ancient solstice custom is Mummering. Still practiced annually in many parts of England and Ireland, this great-grand-daddy of Halloween masquerade died out in much of Canada and the United States centuries ago. In North America today it is a popular part of Christmas now only in Newfoundland and Pennsylvania.
On any night during the twelve days of Christmas you may hear a pounding on your door and strange indrawn voices shouting outside: Any mummers allowed? Whether allowed or not, the mummers will tumble in, loud and masked and rowdy and possibly threatening, turning normal household decorum upside down. They may be friends or complete strangers, and unless you can guess their identities you cannot be sure who is behind the mask or whether their intentions are benign. They are certain to track muddy boots across your carpet, play music, demand drink and act outrageously. All over Newfoundland, these rough-and-tumble spirits of the ancient winter solstice have survived despite the religious and commercial hoopla of modern Christmas.
Photos courtesy of Paul Turner
Mummers at the Door was written and produced by Chris Brookes. Special thanks to the producers of the film "Mummers and Masks" for some of the sound.
Christmas Mummers Play
Read a traditional Mummers Play.
The World Famous Ashdown Mummers
The World Famous Ashdown Mummers is a group dedicated to the performance of a traditional Sussex Mumming Ritual, and some of the lesser known ancient fertility dances.
The Philadelphia Mummers Parade Website
Learn more about the festivities that take place every New Years in Philadelphia.
South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner
by: Murray Dubin 1996
A resident's tour of the ultimate city neighborhood.
The Mysterious Mummer
by: L. M. Falcone 2003
The tale of a thirteen-year-old boy shipped off to stay with his aunt in Newfoundland for Christmas who comes face to face with the arcane Christmas celebration of Mummering.