Time to be a Mummer
New Year’s Day
It is an old colloquialism. “Milking” someone is said to mean to con them out of something. In the song “Twelve Days of Christmas”, day eight is “eight maids a milking”. While it is doubtful that this is what the song means, eight maidens going about conning people out of their possessions or money, it is quite fitting. For it is on this day eight of Christmas tide, this celebration of the New Year, that people participate in what is called the oldest American folk tradition still in existence – being a Mummer!
The Christian calendar has December 21st as the feast of St Thomas and to commemorate it, people went about collecting money for charity. Prior to that, the poor would stand outside the wealthy landowner’s house begging for a bit of starter for their Christmas or plum puddings. The puddings were more a wheat porridge with things added such as fruit or meat suet since most poor people could only obtain the discarded part of the meat. Over time fermenters were added to prolong the shelf life of the pudding and plums were replaced by the more affordable and available raisins.
The first president of the United States of America George Washington supported the tradition of mummers, groups who by this time had evolved into charitable carolers who celebrated the joy of the season of Christmastide and showed love for their fellow man by collecting things given to the less fortunate. Today this tradition continues in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania every New Year’s Day. The Mummer’s Day Parade is not just a time of festivities amid the bleak winter horizon. It is a joining of cultures and traditions.
In Ireland mummers were often seen on St Stephen’s Day or December 26th. Groups of young men had adapted the custom begun by children in going about and singing. Once children had wandered the streets, begging for a cup of hot wassail and perhaps an apple but now groups of young men would stand outside a home a sing until given a “donation”. History records that since their singing was not always harmonious, money was sometimes given just to make them continue on to the next house. These carolers became mummers as Swedish, African, German, and the Anglican customs were all joined together in the new colonies and later the new country on the first day of the new year.
“Here we stand before your door; As we stood the year before; Give us whiskey, give us gin; Open the door and let us in! Or give us something nice and hot; Like a steaming hot bowl of pepper pot!” The modern mummer is from age fifteen to eighty. Instruments never seen in a marching band, like a baritone sax, stringed instruments, or the accordion, are found in a mummer’s parade. Brightly garish costumes are made by groups who consider it a part of their patriotism as well as human benevolence. Like many things, the official Mummer’s Day Parade fell victim to harsh economic times itself but, in true mummer tradition, it also has been saved by the joining of strangers to help out a good cause. The following video is just one of many efforts that successfully kept the mummer’s marching, arranged by actor Kevin Bacon and his brothers and their own band.
When the winter winds are blowing cold, it is a good time to remember that no matter our faith or belief system, it helps us to help others. The goodwill on the streets of Philadelphia, the city known for “brotherly love”, on New Year’s Day is evidence of the hope that exists in the world. It is always a good day to be a mummer – to reach out and help others while reveling in the joy of life. There is no better way to celebrate a new year’s dawn than to be joyful and show love for one’s fellow beings on earth.