St Albans Mummers production of St George and the Dragon_Boxing Day 2015.jpg

A mummering we will go

Mummer’s plays have been performed throughout Britain since the mediaeval period with records dating back to the 13th Century. They spread through the English-speaking world and are performed around the main festivals of the year such as Christmas and Easter.

English folk play texts are mostly performed in rhyme, and often include songs, dances and sword fighting with a small set of characters two of whom do battle and one is killed, to be revived by the most important character, a quack doctor. The heroes vary regionally and include Saint George, Robin Hood (in the Cotswolds) and in Scotland, Galoshin. The adversaries include Slasher (a soldier), Hector and the Turkish Knight. Additionally, there are a variable number of extra characters whose main purpose is to ask the audience for money, food and drink at the end of the performance. The most memorable of these characters is Beelzebub.

Below is the poem The Mummer’s Song by Selwyn Image, an important British artist, designer, writer and poet associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Ho, care away!
Fetch holly for our holiday,
And never a glimpse of ivy-spray;
Fie, fie
On its sullen purple and green!

Laugh and be jolly
Under the mistletoe, under the holly;
Prudence and gravity, sure they’re but folly?
Bid them fly,
And never a tear or a pout be seen!

All’s done,
Hark the bell’s rung, the feast begun;
Forward mummers and start the fun!
Snow and storm,
What count ye by the yule-log’s glow?

Carol and quip,
As the cup it passeth from lip to lip;
Bid God’s blessing and take a sip;
Blithe and warm,
Share we all in the glad wine’s flow!

Dance and sing,
To merry notes let the rafters ring;
Each lass a queen, each lad a king —
Who’ll cry nay
This night of nights in the live-long year?

Old and young,
O it’s aye for the right and avast the wrong,
As we hark the angels’ birthday-song —
In brave array
They’re out on the midnight’s frosty air!

Ergo hodie
Dominum benedicite,
Down we’ve knelt our homage to pay!
Then up, up,
To sing, laugh, feast on old Christmas Day,
Te benedicentes, domine!

Now it’s your turn. Mummer’s plays revolve around the eternal battle between good and evil and are particularly apt at this time of the year when we move from the dark back towards the light after the Winter solstice. If you were to write a Mummer’s play which characters would you create and how might the storyline develop?

(Image: St. George slays the dragon, in a 2015 Boxing Day production, by the St Albans Mummers.)


  1. If I were to write a mummer’s play
    I would stretch further back in time,
    and not set it on a Christmas day,

    but eons before a rood screen graced
    a church, or a cross meant something more
    than directions to a sacred place.

    My play starts in woodsmoke, and wet
    earth that oozes from the primal swamp,
    when evil and good are not yet

    riven into un-melding un-meeting parts
    but light and dark are still wondering
    how to reconcile their splintered hearts.

    My characters then would be these:
    the light of sun, and butterflies, and
    grass and flowers and trees;

    and the darkness that lets all stars shine,
    and bats that fly by sound alone, and
    moonlight, nightingale, and rain-scented pine.

    There would be no battle fought
    no need for resurrection, only
    the recognition of how we are caught

    in the ebb and flow of good and ill,
    and how necessary that has always been
    and how, sadly, it always will.

  2. That’s a wonderful poem Lesley – trying to follow it would be like going on after Queen at Live Aid.
    Happy new year. 🙂

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