Reflections: Mummers’ the word at Christmas in the New Forest
THE Christ’s Mass festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ traditionally lasts for 12 days. It was not until the beginning of the fourth century that the church made 25th December Christmas Day.
This date was also the day of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar. In Anglo-Saxon times this was known as midwinter. When the British Calendar Act of 1751 came into force it omitted 11 days from September 1752 and decreed that religious feast days would continue to be held in their traditional days.
Christmas day remained on 25th December, although some still celebrated ‘Old Christmas Day’ on 5th January. Some of the folklore linked to Christmas does have the ambiguity of being linked to both 25th December and 5th January.
An early record of this was published in 1849 in John Brand’s Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain. He describes this story as “a superstitious notion” that at midnight on Christmas Eve “the oxen in their stalls are always found on their knees, as in an attitude of devotion”.
Brand had been assured by a countryman from St Launceston in Cornwall that he had seen this happen. When the writer could barely conceal his mirth, the Cornishman was most offended.
Thomas Hardy in his 1895 published novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles has William playing a trick on a bull by singing a Christmas carol outside of the nativity period. The animal went down on bended knee and William ran away before the animal realised it had been deceived.
On Christmas Eve 1915, Hardy revived this rural legend with his poem The Oxen:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen;
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel
‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
The Cadnam Oak which buds into leaf on Christmas day has been written about for many years. The Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 10th January 1780 reported that the story had “prevailed in this county for upwards of two centuries”, and that it was “almost considered as a matter of faith that the oak at Cadnam, in the New Forest, shoots forth leaves on every old Christmas day”.
The article gave details of a lady who rode from Salisbury to Cadnam on 3rd January that year, and on meeting her guide she asked him to climb the tree to search for leaves. He initially declined to do so, saying that there was no point until Old Christmas Day.
The lady insisted and reluctantly the guide scrambled up the tree. He was amazed to find several new leaves “fresh sprouted from the buds, and nearly an inch and a half in length”.
The paper concluded by saying that while the superstitious part of the legend of the Christmas budding oak tree had been set aside, there was “something very uncommon and curious in an oak’s constantly shooting forth leaves at this unseasonable time”.
Perhaps alerted by the newspaper report, the following year celebrated vicar of Boldre the Rev William Gilpin on 29th December 1781 rode out to see the “Cadenham Oak”. He recorded that it was among several other oaks stood on a knoll near a small forest stream.
He described it as a “tall, straight plant of no great age”. With smooth bark as if caused “by frequent climbing”. He noted that it had damage to the crown as if pollarded. At the time of Gilpin’s visit, it was entirely devoid of leaves.
Gilpin asked the landlord of the White Hart, Michael Laurence, to send him a sample of leaves from the oak tree as soon as they appeared. On 5th January, Laurence sent several twigs with leaves to Gilpin at his home in Vicar’s Hill.
Gilpin wrote that he was, as a naturalist, unable to explain this phenomenon. He sent some of the twigs and leaves to a leading botanist, Mr Lightfoot. He too was unable to explain why the oak should bud in January. He told Gilpin that the only other instance of “premature vegetation” that he knew of was the Glastonbury Thorn. Wendy Boase in her book The Folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight suggests that the Cadnam tree, a gospel oak, is thought to possess miraculous properties by budding at Christmas time. She records that the existing tree is from a cutting taken from the first Cadnam oak that was struck by lightning and that parties were held beneath the tree on Christmas eve.
The Saturday Magazine of 21st December 1833 dismisses “the superstitious view of the subject which would seem to attribute some supernatural influence to Old Christmas Day”. The writer puts forward the theory that the Cadnam Oak may not be a native to this country and is trying to bud in the springtime of its country of origin.
Clive Chatters in his book Flowers of the Forest suggests more plausibly that Christmas green oaks are simply a “reflection of the depth of the genetic diversity held within a single species”.
The Saturday Magazine reproduced an artist’s impression of the tree, commenting that Gilpin had, 50 years previously, stated that the oak was in good health but that it was now (1833) in the last stage of life having been struck by lightning. However, there was nearby a healthy, young oak grown from an acorn of the original Cadnam tree.
A Christmas tradition that has survived in the New Forest is the mummers play. This short drama is today performed by men dressed in a variety of costumes that disguise their appearance. Originally men and women swapped clothing and wore masks before going from house to house putting on the play for the entertainment of the residents. The players hoped to receive alms in the form of money and food to supplement their Christmas festivities.
The word ‘mummer’ is believed to derive from Dutch or Danish and is synonymous for an actor wearing a mask. To be recognised was considered bad luck, especially as begging was illegal. The actors wore masks or blackened their faces with burnt cork. Their clothing was draped in strips of cloth or paper.
The earliest record for these plays can be found in Chambers Book of Days, which tells of a “splendid mummerie” performed in 1377 for the entertainment of Prince Richard, son of the Black Prince who later become Richard II.
A mummers play was performed to great acclaim in 1400 for Henry IV by 12 aldermen and their sons. Mumming was banned soon after, as a plot to kill the King was discovered which would have been carried out using the mummers play as a cover.
Henry VIII issued a law prohibiting the mummers’ performances on pain of arrest, imprisonment and a fine. This appears to have been in response to the rising levels of crime that was carried out by people in disguise at Christmas time. Nevertheless, the mumming plays continued.
Historian Wendy Boase suggests that these plays may have survived in Hampshire for over eight centuries and that at one stage most Hampshire villages had a troupe of mummers who would perform at Christmas time.
Locally there are records of mummers groups in Milton Parish, Milford, Lymington, East Boldre, Beaulieu and Netley Marsh. Wendy comments that the mumming play may be unique in English literature, one of the few survivors of pre-Reformation folk drama.
There are many versions of the mumming play, each with their own unique local slant, but all containing the allegory of death and resurrection. The typical mummers play takes place among the audience. Father Christmas comes in to announce the start of the play and to introduce the first the character, usually King George or St George, who is armed with a wooden sword. King George boasts of his fame, courage, and prowess in battle.
The next characters to appear are one or sometimes two ‘turkey snipes’. In some versions of the play these are Turkish knights, or Bold Bonaparte, or Captain Slasher. A fight ensues in which the turkey snipe falls to the ground mortally wounded. The second turkey snipe harangues King George and calls for a doctor.
Doctor Brown then enters and boasts of his medical skills and offers to bring the vanquished turkey snipe back to life for a fee. Once the remuneration has been agreed, the doctor produces from his bag a bottle of medicine which he pours down the throat of the victim who miraculously comes back to life.
In some versions of the play, battle commences again. King George then announces it is Christmas, a time for peace and happiness. He then introduces the arrival of another character, Johnny Jack, who has several dolls attached to his coat, symbolising that he is the sole provider for his family.
Johnny Jack makes a plea for alms in the form of food and drink to support him and his family. King George concludes by asking the audience for any small change to help the mummers enjoy their Christmas.
Writing in the Milford on Sea Record Society occasional magazine of November 1912, C. Rivett-Carnac recalled the Mummers of Milford had in their troupe Beelzebub, who caused terror among the children in the audience, not only by his blackened face and appearance but also by banging loudly on a frying pan with a stick.
The play was staged in the servants’ hall either in his parents’ home or his aunt and uncle’s house, Kivernalls. He wrote that the noise of the wooden swords “thwacking” together in combat added greatly to the entertainment.
In 1966 the Hampshire Magazine published the full script of the East Boldre version of the play, which led to the formation of the New Forest Mummers. They have played every Christmas since then. This year is their 56th year of performing and raising money for charity.
This short seasonal play is a wonderful piece of folk drama which has survived in various forms for hundreds of years. If you would like to see the mummers play being performed this Christmas, the New Forest Mummers will be visiting pubs and hotels across the area from 21st to 24th December and Boxing Day afternoon. To check the venues and times go to https://bit.ly/4833gBD
The New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times edition of 27th of January this year reported the New Forest Mummers raised £2,390 for Alzheimer’s Research UK. This Christmas, the charity that the mummers are supporting is Home Start Hampshire, which supports local families through tough times.
I am grateful to Mike Farleigh of the New Forest Mummers for his assistance in providing some of the images for this article.
Nick Saunders MA is a local historian and chairman of the Milton Heritage Society. He can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org