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'Tis The Season To Go Mumming


Mummers Stoneleigh. Photo by Pete Willow.


Pete Willow previews an annual folk tradition that involves death, rebirth, sword fights and – in one local village - a good handbagging.


Father Christmas, St. George, a Turkish Knight, a quack doctor and Beelzebub are heading your way this Christmas, especially if you are in the villages of Newbold-on-Avon and Stoneleigh.


These are some of the characters featured in the longstanding tradition of Christmas Mumming plays and the Coventry Mummers are once again dusting off their props and costumes to stage these carefully preserved examples of ‘English ritual drama’.


Mummers Stoneleigh Doctor with celebrity furry friend. Photo by Pete Willow.


Sunday 17 December sees the Newbold-on-Avon Christmas Play which tours the village near Rugby, from 10.30am, and culminates in a lively session of music and song in the Barley Mow pub at 1.15pm. Spoiler alert – the Turkish Knight dies in battle with St.George, but is brought back to life after a thorough and enthusiastic handbagging by Moll Finney.


A script of the play was first published in 1899 in the journal of the Folklore Society and was revived by the team in 1976. The action must be seen to be believed, especially when performed in Newbold’s St.Botolph’s Church in which the charming but violent Ms Finney (traditionally played by a male), and the moneygrabbing Beelzebub participate without impunity or bolts of lightning!


 With a slight change of script and characters, the Mummers fulfil a local Boxing Day tradition with the Stoneleigh Play. Performances start in Ashow at 10.30am before moving to various locations in and around Stoneleigh village with a final presentation outside the Stoneleigh Club at 1.05pm – definitely one of the highlights of the local folk calendar.


The play was rediscovered in 1926 by Mary Dormer Harris, a prominent local historian and former village resident. Revived by the Mummers in 1975, the play has been performed every Boxing Day since then (even under special conditions during lockdown!).


Mummers Stoneleigh King George. Photo by Pete Willow.


 Mumming is a rural activity which, according to some, goes back to the Crusades. The plays have been performed over centuries by locals or possibly itinerate soldiers, dressed in imaginatively makeshift costumes and are now staged in streets, courtyards, pub car parks, front gardens, any location where there is enough space to ring a bell or stage a sword fight. 


 A typical Mummers play presents a humorous but symbolic representation of death and rebirth. It often features a hero and villain fighting a battle to the death, with the loser brought back to life by a comic doctor, sometimes with the clumsy assistance of a clown or dame character.


 Established in 1966, the Coventry Mummers see themselves as guardians of the tradition although the Christmas plays really belong to the villages themselves and local residents are encouraged to play some of the characters. Each performance lasts for ten to fifteen minutes after which the performers collect money for local charities.


 For more information, visit the Coventry Mummers website on www.coventrymummers.org.uk.



 

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