Like these spooky bin bags, collecting in aid of a charity in 1910. The costumes are a throwback to a pagan tradition called “mumming”, where revelers would wear disguises and visit neighbor’s houses, singing and dancing in return for food, booze, and money.
A photo dated from 1910 shows masked carol singers congregating outside a home in Hampstead, London, to collect in aid of the ‘Motherhood Dinner Fund’ charity. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Mumming is an ancient pagan custom that was an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas! It means ‘making diversion in disguise’. The tradition was that men and women would swap clothes, put on masks and go visiting their neighbors, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a silly plot. The leader or narrator of the mummers was dressed as Father Christmas.
The custom of Mumming might go back to Roman times, when people used to dress up for parties at New Year. It is thought that, in the UK, it was first done on St. Thomas’s day or the shortest day of the year.
Different types of entertainments were done in different parts of the UK, particularly in England. In parts of Durham, Yorkshire and Devon a special sword dance was performed. There were also different names for mumming around the UK too. In Scotland it was known as ‘Gusards’ or ‘Guising’; in Somerset, ‘Mumping’; in Warwickshire or ‘Thomasing’; and ‘Corning’ in Kent.
In Medieval times, it had turned into an excuse for people to go begging round the houses and committing crimes. It became so bad that Henry VIII, made a law saying that anyone that caught mumming wearing a mask would be put in prison for three months!
One poem that people said when mumming was:
Christmas is coming, the beef is getting fat,
Please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.
Over the years, this was changed into a very similar poem that is said by some carol singers today:
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
The early settlers from the UK took the custom of Mumming to Canada. It is known as Murmuring in Canada, but is banned in most places because people used it as an excuse for begging.
There’s also a famous Mummer’s Day parade New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, in the USA, which lasts over six hours!
Mumming is still done in parts of the UK, USA and Canada.