In medieval Europe, ‘mummer’ was a term for a costumed performer or reveler. There are several theories about where the word came from:

  • An old French word, momer,  meaning “to mask oneself.”
  • The English word ‘mum,’ as in “quiet,” because mummers commonly performed silent pantomimes.
  • Momus, the Greek god of mockery and satire, who is traditionally depicted lifting a mask from his face.

History

The practice of mumming has historically been associated with holidays and celebrations. In France, January 1st was a day when the common folk donned masks and costumes to trade roles with the powerful for a day in a festival known as The Feast of Fools. In England, masked celebrations took place on the last Tuesday before Lent, a tradition connected to the wild merrymaking of Mardi Gras and Carnivale .

In England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, mummers’ plays were performed to celebrate special occasions. This tradition is depicted by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where four commoners come together to perform a mummers’ play for the wedding of two nobles, only to be caught up in Puck’s pranks.  Mummers’ plays were traditionally performed on Mayday, Christmas, Twelfth Night, New Year’s Eve/Day, Easter, and just before Lent, as well as at special celebrations such as weddings and coronation.

Modern-Day Mummers

Mumming has survived into the present day in a number of forms. Mummer’s plays are still performed in parts of England and some English-speaking countries, either in the street, at public houses, or as the mummers travel in costume from house to house (a practice known as ‘guising’). They are usually performed during the Christmas season, but sometimes on All Souls Day or Easter.

In Philadelphia, the Mummers Parade is an annual spectacle that takes place on New Year’s Day. Each year, thousands of mummers march in elaborate costumes, alongside floats built by competing clubs.

In Newfoundland, ‘mummering’ is a Christmas folk  tradition in which groups would disguise themselves and wander from house to house at night, with faces covered. The mummers often carried musical instruments, playing, singing, and dancing for their hosts in exchange for food or drink. At each house, the visitors would let the hosts try to guess their identity, only unmasking when a correct guess was made.

It is easy to see the origins of many aspects of Halloween in mumming as well. The “trick-or-treat!” called out by children as they go from house to house, the wild costumes and disguises, and the spirit of impish revelry we associate with October 31st are all deeply rooted in this tradition.

To me, the word ‘mummer’ evokes a sense of mysteriousness, revelry, creativity, and a dash of mischief. The tradition of mumming is not art as practiced only by professionals; it is a performance that all may take part in. It also reminds me that the art of making masks is grounded in a near-universal human tradition of disguise and revelation.

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