This article appeared in “The Folk Bag” magazine, issue, no 1 edited by Tony Wales in 1961. It serves as a useful introduction to the folk play in Sussex but it would be fair to say that not all experts would agree with some of Harry’s statement on its origins.
“HERE COME I, OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS….”
Some notes on the traditional Mummers play
by Harry Mousdell.
It is Christmas; a clarion silences the guests and into the room comes a well loved figure clad in brightest red. He announces “Here come I, Old Father Christmas….” Eighty or so years ago this was a familiar seasonal custom, for the Mummers were relied on to provide the merriment of a Merry Christmas. Throughout the rural non-celtic parts of England and Southern Scotland, countless countrymen would almost instinctively gather together to rehearse a Winter tradition which had been passed down to them proudly through the centuries by word of mouth. As they recited lines almost gibberish due to the distortion of time, and strutted vigorously around the area cleared by the command “Make room, make room here, gallant boys” and the wielding of Little Johnny Jack’s besom, they little realised they were performing a ritual originating in prehistoric communities.
The basic theme requires a cast of four, l) Presenter, usually Old Father Christmas. 2) Champion (Winner) St. George, King George, Galation (Scotland). 3) Champion (Loser). Turkish Knight, Turkey Knight and 4) Doctor. There are always more dramatis personae than these, and versions may include one or more of the following up to as many as eight; Little Johnny Jack, or Billy Twing Twang (forerunner of Punch), Beelzebub, Noble Captain, Valiant Soldier, Bold Slasher, Snapdragon, Robin Hood, Napoleon, obscure generals or admirals…and many others.
The pattern of the play is approximately: l) Father Christimas enters, introduces the play, and calls in St. George. 2) St. George issues a boasting challenge which is accepted by the Turkish Knight. 3) They fight and the Turkish Knight is slain. 4) Father Christmas calls for a Doctor, and they haggle over the cost of the treatment. 5) Doctor raises Turkish Knight by using a magic potion, e.g. Hokum Slokum Alicampane; Golden Loosey Drops. 6) St. George patriotically recounts his exploits in rescuing Sabra, the King of Egypt’s daughter, and issues another cocksure challenge. 7) Another fight. In some variants either the first or a subsequent fight is between supporters of the Champions, e.g. Valiant Soldier (St. George) and Dragon (Turkish Knight), St. George or his representative wins in the end. 8) Cure, but as the Turkish Knight rises there is an intimation that the alternation of death and life will continue perpetually. 9) Little Johnny Jack and Beelzebub. These characters are jesterish, and after speeches about food pass the hat round. 10) Carol and/or sword dance.
My Specification is vague, for although there is a theme uniting all the performances, and even establishing definite relationships with similar ceremonies in Europe, each version possesses particular characteristics developed intimately by the community to whom it belongs. Therefore for example, with about 35 Sussex variants it is impossible to quote the standard Play.
Whitsuntide customs in Saxony, Thuringen and as far as the Balkans, contain a kill and cure factor. The beings subjected to make-belief sacrifices can be identified as the personifications of a tree or corn spirit in particular, or a general fertility spirit. Cure and re-life signifies Spring. For Paleolithic and Mesolithic Man (12,000-2,500 BC) fertility and destiny were synonymous. The priest king of the primeval community was endowed with the magical control of rain and sun, and hence Spring and fertility. Inevitably he failed and was sacrificed, his power being transferred to the successor.
Imperceptibly a custom evolved – seasonal sacrifice occurred, then the sacrifice of scapegoats (substitutes), and eventually the seasonal mimed or mock death. Odin, most prominent of the mythical Tectonic Gods hanged himself on the Ash Yggdrasil (The Tree of Life) in order to be revitalised on resurrection. The sacrifice real or aimed was accompanied by dancing, and this is believed to have been the source of the sword and Morris dances which still present a beheading in rudimentary form.
With the advent of Christianity, the play’s pagan attachments were severed and a raison d’etre of Good conquering Evil superimposed interchange of ideas between morality/passion plays, and the mummers play. This is demonstrated in the latter by the recruiting of Beelzebub, although the character is conceivably associated with fertility. In the 12th century the Crusades influenced the play, and St. George and Turkish Knight are an expression of patriotism. Robin Hood was elected either as a tree spirit or popular folk hero. The earliest reference to a ceremony resembling the Mummers Play is in 14th century ecclesiastical documents. In 1596 Elizabethan writer Richard Johnson published his “Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom”, in which he set down the legend of St. George, That strolling players disseminated this legend is evidenced by village accounts in which payment was made for performance of plays based upon The Seven Champions, No doubt these companies of actors took Mummers plays and adapted them to their own repertoires. The date of the earliest text of a Mummer’s version is 1788. During the Napoleonic Wars the play kept up to date and enlisted Napoleon. The dialogue was spontaneously re-composed by Mummers with experience of press gangs, as exemplified in the Fittleworth variant. Father Christmas may be Christmas Prince 1607 – Lord of Misrule or just a sentimental acquisition when St. Nicholas delightfully invaded our country. His curtain speech from the Fittleworth Tipteer’s play however expresses our 20th century sentiments!
“In comes I the Prince of Peace, Bid all these awful wars to cease. So clap your hands together, and let your voices ring. Long live King George and merrily we will sing”.