Caroling and Mummering in England
Caroling and mummering are two of the oldest customs in Great Britain, going back to the Middle Ages when beggars, seeking food, money, or drink, would wander the streets singing holiday songs.
Wandering minstrels traveled from hamlet to castle, performing carols. In later years, villages had their own bands of waits*. They were originally watchmen who patrolled the city streets and sang out the time of night each hour. During the holiday season, they would entertain the townspeople with a Christmas song as well. The term eventually evolved to describe a group of carolers or musicians who sang and performed at numerous locations throughout the city during the holiday season.
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was a German native and brought the tradition of the Christmas tree with him when they married. Trafalgar Square is the home of one of the country’s most popular Christmas trees, a large spruce tree which is placed near a statue of Lord Nelson. During World War II when King Haakon of Norway was forced into exile in England during the German occupation of Norway, the Norwegian troops would smuggle a tree past the Germans into England so the King would have a Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday. Since then, Norway has sent a large Norwegian spruce tree each year as a thank you to the British people.
The English gift giver is called Father Christmas. He wears a long red or green robe, and leaves presents in stockings or pillowcases on Christmas Eve. However, the gifts are not usually opened until the following afternoon.
Another English tradition is called mummering. In the Middle Ages, people called mummers put on masks and acted out Christmas plays. These plays are still performed in towns and villages. Despite their relative decline following industrialization, the plays have survived in pockets across the country; Belvoir, Leominster, North Muskham and Overton all have annual performances. These folk plays are real community entertainment and the costumes are brilliant. Often, the mummers wear ‘ribbon’ costumes, like fitted rag rugs, completing the ensemble with a hat and bells. It’s a spectacle not to be missed.
It would seem that caroling and mummering still exist in this day and age, having survived to become long-standing holiday traditions.
The day after Christmas in England is called Boxing Day**. Boys would go around town collecting money in clay boxes. When the boxes were full, they broke them open.
*From medieval times up to the early 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a band of waites (modern spelling waits). Their duties varied from time to time and place to place, but included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor’s procession on civic occasions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wait_(musician)
**In Britain, it was a custom for tradespeople to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19 December 1663. This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxing_Day