History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Mumming for the New Year

Mumming was long a popular entertainment for the dark time of the year. The Christmas and New Years or Hogmanay plays offered adventures, dragons and Saint George and other wild characters -- Turkish Knights or Kings became popular after the Crusades. They offered an opportunity for hijinks, costumes and ritual of course. But they had another important theme, too.

At heart the plays were about healing.

I have a fond connection to the Yuletide play: in grad school we did one every year that drew as much on panto traditions of topical humour as on the mumming tropes. But one indelible part was Charles Owen, one of the founders of our Medieval Studies program, who always played Father Christmas and opened the play with the traditional command for Room, room for the players.

Here come I, old Father Christmas,
Welcome or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.

Then in came Saint George or some other bold adventurer, sword brandished and ready to show some merry sport or game. Those familiar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Rauf Coilyear will recognise the Yuletide Challenge. The fight and the death are important, but so is the healing of wounds. The Green Knight [spoilers, sweetie] puts his head back on and though bled, Gawain does not lose his. In some plays, there's actually a character of a doctor to tend to the wounds.

In the New Years/Hogmanay play known as Galoshin, the nominal hero is Sir Alexander who fights Galoshin, 'The bravest knight in all the land', and manages to kill him -- or has the farmer's son done it, or even the Admiral? Never mind: Sir Alexander will fix it by calling the Doctor. He lays claim to his skills based on his travels:

From Hickerty-pickerty-hedgehog,
three times round the West Indies,
and back to old Scotland. 

The next step is negotiations. For a doctor of such renown, it's a tricky matter:

Admiral: What will you take to cure a dead man?
Doctor: Nine pounds and a bottle of wine.
Admiral: I'll give you six.

Eventually the Admiral agrees to the price (the Doctor has him over a barrel, so to speak) and the cure begins. Not surprisingly, it is only a matter of waving the bottle of wine under the gallant's nose:

Golaschin {Rises and sings}
Once I was dead, sir
And now I am alive;
Blessed be the doctor
That made me revive.

All that's needed now is to encourage the hosts to 'revive' the players, too, which they do with a blessing upon the house.

Bless the master of this house,
The mistress good also
And all the little children
That round the table go.
We'll all shake hands
We'll never fight no more;
With our pockets full of money,
And our barrels full of beer,
We'll all go a-drinking
Around the Spanish shore.
Hooray, for a Happy New Year! 

May you find healing this new calendar year and may your home be filled with laughter and good cheer.

For more on folks plays and mumming, visit Peter Millington's Master Mummers and the Folk Play Research Group.

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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