Brit Language: Christmas Traditions Largely Unknown to Americans – Part 2

In everyone’s favorite Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens writes, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” We each celebrate and honor Christmas in our own way and with our own traditions. Brits celebrate Christmas with traditions like Mumming, Morris Dancing, and Pantos. I’d never heard of any of these celebrations until I began researching British Christmas traditions. Americans love to shop, eat, party, decorate, and carol, but we might be missing something. We could add some joy and merriment to our own celebrations with some of these fun British Christmas traditions.

Morris Dancing

In town squares, village greens, and neighborhood pubs men dance with large bunches of bells around their legs,  jumping up and down and back and forth while beating out a rhythm with sticks and making an occasional jubilant outburst. Sometimes, the dance includes swords. The dance is similar to my elementary school days of recess square dancing, though we weren’t allowed to take swords out to recess or to hit each other with sticks.

Morris Dancing is most often seen on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, which we call the ‘day after Christmas’. (It’s a day for those intrepid souls to scoop up all the post Christmas sales and “box” their way to great sales.) Morris Dancing is an old tradition dating from the time of King Henry VII as a courtly entertainment and is popular at Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, and Spring and Summer festivals.

I think this quote explains it best:

“Most of all, though, Morris Dancing is an ineradicable part of the English pastoral scene. Taking its place among real ale, village greens, the resurgence of cricket and warm summer days, it evokes a merry England far removed from troubled urban reality. An icon of England then, but also unashamedly an icon of fun.”

Looks like good fun to me!

Mumming

Hmmm? This one is a puzzle. Let me guess. People run around pinning mums on each other? Brits dress up like mummies and sing carols? Actually, actors known as mummers or guisers, also known locally as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, galoshins, guysers, (these names just tickle me, I like pace-eggers) perform seasonal folk plays.

 “Although usually broadly comic performances, the plays seem to be based on underlying themes of duality and resurrection and generally involve a battle between two or more characters, perhaps representing good against evil. Usually they feature a doctor who has a magic potion which is able to resuscitate a slain character.”

The tradition may go back to Roman times when people dressed in costumes for parties at New Years. Related Mummers plays include The Derby Tup, The Old Horse, and The Papa Stour Sword Dance. Mumming, if that isn’t an odd enough name, is called Mumping in Warwickshire, Thomasing and Corning’ in Kent. More great names. I like Mumping!

Yule logs

A large and very hard single log burns for 12 hours on Christmas Eve and is allowed to smolder for 12 days of Christmas. Luck is ensured if the log is not allowed to go out. Most Brits recognize this tradition, associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas, with a rich cake of cream and chocolate. Imagine the luck that will fall on you if you can delay consumption of that rich decadent delight for 12 days.

Contributing to my fascination of silly and unusual words, the yule log has many names:

North-east of England it was commonly called a Yule Clog

Midlands and West Country, Yule Block

Lincolnshire, Gule Block

Cornwall, Stock of the Mock

Wales, the log was often referred to as Y Bloccyn Gwylian, meaning  the Festival Block

Scotland, Yeel Carline, the Christmas Old Wife (must be a story there)

Ireland, the term, Bloc na Nollaig, which meant the Christmas Block

 

Since Santa would be burned up in the yule log continuous flame, I’ll do my part and eat the chocolate version of the yule log. As if I need an excuse to eat chocolate cake.

Panto

“Between the start of December and the middle of January, professional actors and serious productions across the nation make way for pantos: part vaudeville, part children’s play, part cabaret. The plots are absurd, the dialogue a bizarre mix of bad puns and risqué asides, the acting dreadful and the costumes comical.”

This another activity we might embrace. It’s ironic that Brits, with their stereotypical stiff upper lip, should enjoy such frivolity, but that’s what I love about y’all!

Happy Christmas! I hope you enjoy your holiday celebrations, however you choose to celebrate them. I can only hope a bit of  your freewheeling, zany British Christmas traditions will catch on here. Now, if someone can just explain frumenty to me?

 


Comments

  1. avatarGarry Jantzen says

    I wonder why Panto never transferred to N. America? I loved the two winters we spent in Edinburgh and the Pantos we attended!

  2. avatar says

    I thought Morris dancers were generally associated with Mayday. Hadn’t realized they had anything to do with Christmas, so you learn something every day.

    Living here in the UK, I can’t say mumming is a big thing anymore, but chocolate Yule logs and panto are definitely going strong!

  3. avatar says

    We discussed your article around the office. The British here all agreed that whilst Panto was alive and kicking and very popular the other things you mention are pretty well unheard of in the UK amongst most people.

    Morris Dancing is (as pointed out in another comment) almost exclusively associated with May Day. None of the British here had ever seen a Yule Log and as for Mumming… well that was so obscure as to raise eyebrows and questions about whether it still existed outside a very few, relatively unknown venues!

  4. avatarPhil Drawbridge says

    Like my fellow Brits, I always think of Morris Dancing as Whitsun and MIchaelmas thing. But with pagan roots (as do mummer’s plays) it’s not a surprise to see it around all the Christian celebrations. You did forget about the inflated pigs bladder on the end of the stick.

    Like you mentioned, when I was growing up our Yule log was essentially a chocolate swiss roll covered in more chocolate and a sprig of holly. Didn’t last 12 days though. ;-)

    As for Panto, we have to keep it alive otherwise we would never see the likes of Joe Pasquale, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.

  5. avatarTina says

    I live in Philadelphia, PA and the Mummer’s Parade has been a huge New Years Day tradition since long before I was born (don’t ask; I don’t like to think about it). I admit that the first New Years Day after I moved here I was completely perplexed by the bizarro parade moving through town as, being from NYC, I’d never encountered anything like that outside of Saturday night in Times Square. I initially attributed it to the aftereffects of my New Years Eve activities but then found out that it wasn’t a hallucination after all. Go figure.

  6. avatarSean says

    Actually Morris dancing is a tradition in parts of Yorkshire. You need only visit Haworth in the lead up to Christmas, to see traditions such as, “scroggling the holly and torchlight march.”
    They have Morris dancing at both these events.

  7. avatarAlan ward says

    I saw some mumming down the local in croperty Oxfordshire on new years eve great fun .bit of sword fighting saving the maiden and miraculous healing potion came in handy .see Morris dancers a lot in this area .love panto totally bonkers but that’s the fun

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