Local HistoryTraditions

The Mummers, or Christmas Boys

With this post we hear from Dr. Joseph Stevens1 again on the traditions at Christmas in St Mary Bourne.

When Christmas came round, its festivities were heightened by the appearance of a small band of youths, who went through a popular pantomime at most of the houses in the parish where the residents were likely to furnish some entertainment on the spot, or contribute a small sum towards the providing a supper and ale elsewhere. Mummer means a masker. The play was conducted by half-a-dozen lads dressed in blouses, decorated profusely with coloured paper ribbons, and wearing conical caps streaming with similar paper decoration. In addition, each one carried in his hand a short wooden sword.

Mummers from nearby Overton in the 1930s2

Half-a-century ago the performances of this village band began on the evening of the 24th of December, Christmas Eve’ but as some of the older inhabitants were what were called “Old Christmasers”, adherents of the later date for keeping Christmas Day, considerable rivalry existed regarding the time of holding the festival. It was affirmed by some of the old Christmas Day observers “that they never had eaten their Christmas dinner except on the 6th January, and that they never would do so.” And thus during the lifetime of this generation of persistents in the customs of their youth the thing went on, doubtless greatly to the satisfaction of the Christmas Boys or Mummers, whose visitations continuing somewhat interruptedly during the time intervening between the two festivals, obtained thereby a lengthened term of merriment.

The plot was evidently Eastern, and founded probably on the Legend of St. George. And there can be no doubt that the usage, continued onwards from sire to son, is as old as the myth itself. There were various versions of the play, all of which were alike in the principal characters. The following is as complete an adherence to the text as I could obtain, and at which I was present at the performance of, at Dipland House, in St. Mary Bourne in 1874. The characters were the following:-

Old Father Christmas.
Mince Pie.
A Turkish Knight.
St. George.
An Italian Doctor.
Little John.

Divested of matter that had no relation to the play, the dialogue ran as follows :-


Oh! here come I, Old Father Christmas, welcome, or welcome not,
I hope Old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
Make room! room! I say!
That I may lead Mince Pie this way.
‘Walk in, Mince Pie, and act thy part,
And show the gentles thy valiant heart.


Room! room! good gentles all give me room to rhyme,
I’ll show you some festivity this Christmas time.

Enter a TURKISH KNIGHT with a wooden sword.

I am a valiant Turkish Knight,
And dare with any man to fight;
Bring me the man that bids me stand,
Who says he’ll cut me down with his audacious hand.
I’ll cut him and hack him as small as a fly.
And send him to Satan to make mince pie.

Enter ST. GEORGE with a Wooden sword.

Oh! in come I, St. George, the man of courage bold.
With my sword and buckler I’ve won three crowns of gold;
I fought the fiery Dragon and brought him to the slaughter’
I won a beauteous Queen, a King of Egypt’s daughter. ‘
If thy mind is high, my mind is bold,
If thy blood is hot, I will make it cold.

(They fight, and the TURKISH KNIGHT falls.)

Turkish Knight. Oh! St. George, spare my life!

Father Christmas. Is there no Doctor to be found
To cure this man who’s bleeding on the ground?


Yes! an Italian Doctor’s to be found
To cure the Knight who’s bleeding on the ground.
I cure the sick of every pain,
And bring the dead to life again.

Father Christmas. Doctor, what is thy fee?
The Doctor. I’ll take ten pounds of thee,
but fifteen is my fee,
Before I set this gallant free.

Father Christmas. Doctor! work thy will.

The Doctor. I have a little bottle by my side,
The fame of which spreads far and wide,
1 drop a drop on this poor man’s nose.

(The DOCTOR touches the TURKISH KNIGHT’S nose,
and the KNIGHT rises to his feet.)

Enter LITTLE JACK, with sundry dolls attached to his back.

Oh! in come I, little saucy Jack,
With all my children at my back.
Christmas comes but once a year,
And when it comes it brings good cheer:
Roast beef, plum pudding, and mince pie,
\Vh!) likes that any better than I ?
Christmas ale makes us dance and sing;
Money in the purse is a very fine thing.

Ladies and Gentlemen, give us ‘what you please.

The performance being over, a Christmas Carol is sung, and the Mummers depart.

We know today that St. Mary Bourne celebrated Old Christmas as mentioned by Joseph Stevens in 1888 until at least 1826 as there is an article about Christmas Festivities in the Hampshire Chronicle that references St. Mary Bourne celebrating Christmas Eve on the 5th January.

When the village stopped celebrating Christmas in January is unknown at present but with further research into the archives maybe a date will become known.

And for those that want to know a little more about “Old Christmas”, I was told last night at Andover History & Archaeology Society’s Christmas meeting about the following article by the author.

Old Christmas (and a Happy New Year)

“About forty-five years ago, when I first settled in the village, a friend inquired, ‘What kind of folk live at Bourne?’ whereupon I replied, ‘The people generally live in thatched houses, and keep old Christmas.’

Joseph Stevens was writing about the villagers of St Mary Bourne in the early 1840s, when he came to be their doctor. Neither observation was particularly complimentary: thatched cottages displayed the general poverty of the village; keeping ‘old Christmas’, that it was behind the times, having failed to register the calendar change of 1752. In that year, Britain had officially lost 11 days to bring its Julian (Old Style) calendar into line with the rest of Europe’s Gregorian calendar (New Style) and so into better alignment with the solar year.

If the message didn’t get through to remote country areas, or the people thought it fake news, or simply decided not to comply, then in the rest of the 18th century, those still following the old calendar would actually be celebrating their Christmas Day, 25th December, on everyone else’s 5th January — hence ‘old Christmas’.

In February 1800, the Julian calendar had another leap year but the Gregorian did not, so ‘old Christmas’ now fell on 6th January (New Style), which is the Feast of the Epiphany. So those celebrating ‘old Christmas’ in 1842 were in fact 90 years behind the times. But, by a remarkable coincidence, this now aligned them with the Eastern Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia etc., by whom Christmas is celebrated at Epiphany. So in their error, the old Christmasser folk at Bourne were actually more correct in their celebrations than the enlightened thought them.

A lapsed member of the Guild of Clock-Watchers (MC)3

  1. Stevens, J. (1888). Parochial History of St. Mary Bourne Hants with an account of the manor of Hurstbourne Priors Hants. London: Whiting and Co. ↩︎
  2. https://www.andoveradvertiser.co.uk/news/11581075.back-through-the-pages/ ↩︎
  3. from Hill & Valley magazine, Issue 264, Dec 2022-Jan 2023, available online at https://stmarybourne.org/ ↩︎

2 thoughts on “The Mummers, or Christmas Boys

  • Jim Wheatley

    Hi Julz
    Interesting article thanks, I thought you might be interested to know that the Overton Mummers are still going strong and will be appearing, along with Andover Musuim Loft Singers at The White Hart (Stoke) this Sunday lunchtime – bit of a squeeze but all welcome
    The White Hart Sunday 17th December, the choir about 1:30, surprise visit from Mummers about 2:00 then likely to be a bit more singing with a few carols


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