Wassailing, Kukeri, and Mumming Oh My!
With each new Christmas I see, I find myself fascinated with old seasonal traditions. Whether it’s Victorian ghost stories or the pre-Christian symbols of Yule, there’s always something new to discover this time of year.
A Tale for a Winter’s Night
For the Victorian English, ghost stories at Christmas were just as common as Mariah Carey’s Christmas songs are on the…
One thing I’ve learned this Christmas season is how many different old traditions there are which involve visiting neighbour’s houses on Christmas or around Christmas. Modern North Americans are likely only familiar with carolling — where groups of singers travel from house-to-house to sing festive songs and bring cheer — but there are several European traditions, some of which date back to Pre-Christian seasonal celebrations.
Also known as Mummering, the origins of this tradition are unknown, but it was widely practiced in the UK and Ireland from at least as far back as medieval times, and Newfoundland, Canada — where there’s even a Mumming festival today — in the 19th c., though it was temporarily outlawed in the mid-1800s after someone was allegedly murdered by mummers.
During the Twelve Days of Christmas or the twelve days between Christmas Day and January 5th, groups of friends and family travel to various houses in their neighbourhood and ask for entry. The groups are usually dressed in costumer and do not reveal who is who. The mummers didn’t speak, either, only saying “mmm” or “mum” – this is where we get the expression, “mum’s the word.”
If the mummers are let in, the hosts then attempt to guess who each mummer is — though many strategies are used for hiding their identity, such as padding themselves with cushions or disguising their voices. Once all identities are revealed, the masks come off and there is food and drink and singing. Sometimes there was even some gambling.
There was also the tradition of informal performances and plays. Groups of costumed mummers would travel about and perform plays, usually in the streets. One such play, which is still performed in England today, is the tale of St. George slaying the dragon. Unfortunately, no formal texts or scripts survive of these plays.
With the rise of puritan practices during the reformation in England and with the reign of Oliver Cromwell — who was the worst — in the 1650s, Christmas festivities and traditions were basically outlawed, including mumming. But, it has made a comeback and is practiced today in some regions!
Technically, there are two types of wassailing, home-visiting and orchard-visiting, but for the sake of the article, I’ll be focusing on the home-visiting type. The term “wassailing” comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael,” which means “be well” or “be in good health.”
Much like with mumming, groups of people go home-to-home to sing and bring good tidings, but an aspect of wassailing which is not found in mumming is the communal drink — usually alcoholic — from the wassail bowl in exchange for food and gifts. Traditionally, wassailing happened on the “Twelfth Night” or January 5th, which is the twelfth day of Christmas.
Wassail is also a drink — or the drink — made from spiced ale with fruit and other dressings.
The tradition predates Christianity in England but continued through the middle ages and is actually closer to what we today would consider carolling than any of the other practices in this article. The lyrics from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” contain hints of a wassailing past:
“Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
And bring it right here”
“We won’t go until we get some
So bring it right here”
Many traditional wassailing songs still survive today, including the Gloucestershire Wassail (performed by Loreena McKennitt above).
How would you react if you opened the door one winter's day to find a horse’s skull suddenly asking you riddles? Personally, I’d be more than a little disturbed.
This is a version of wassailing from the southern part of Wales, where the Mari Lwyd is a horse skull carried on a pole, with a sheet covering the person holding the pole. Sometimes the skull is represented by a paper version or wooden. The equine skull might also be decorated with ribbons and bells.
The Mari Lwyd would request entry into a house via rhyme or poetry and the host would be required to respond in a similar manner. The exchange would continue, almost as a battle of wits, until the host gave in and invited the party inside and provided them with food and drink.
While the tradition is distinctly a pre-Christian creation, the first written about and recorded in the 1800s. The symbol of a white horse has been important in England for thousands of years, and it’s part of the folklorish “hooded animal” customs that permeated all over England.
In Scotland, more specifically the island of Shetland, there is a tradition that can trace its roots back to Norse pagan time on the islands. The Skeklers, which could also be children, would dress in straw costumes and perform to bring back the sun and bless their coming farming season.
Skekling would usually take place from Halloween — or Samhain — to Yule, which in the pagan calendar is the end of the harvest season to the longest night of the year, but also the celebration of the returning of the sun. Though separate from the Scottish practice of “guising,” which is the act of dressing up and going from home-to-home — much like trick-or-treating today — Skeklers were dressed as supernatural beings.
Much like with mumming, Skeklers would disguise their identities and even alter their voice to achieve this. They would visit local houses and perform dances, usually around the central fire of the home. Another aspect of Skekling was the collection of food. The group would carry around a bag for the collection of the food.
The tradition began to die out in the 19th and early 20th c., but some on the island have been attempting to bring back the custom.
Outside of the UK, these traditions exist in their own right. In Bulgaria, there is the custom of dressing as monsters to banish demons and evil spirits. However, Kukeri is closer to traditions found in the Balkans and Greece. Like the customs in the UK, the origins of the Kukeri span far back and are murky.
Around the new year, men — and sometimes women — dress in costume and wooden masks, with bells attached to their belts, and travel in groups to villages to scare away the evil spirits and to bring happiness and luck for the coming year. They would go from house-to-house and perform dances for the hosts. In some regions, small plays were even acted out by the groups. Then there would be a larger gathering in the village, where there would be more dancing and amusement.
While the custom of travelling to individual homes has mostly died out, the Kukeri still perform and attend festivals.