The beast will progress in a cacophony of drums, shakers and tin whistles

This evening, at the winter solstice, the turning of the year, mummers in villages all over England will raise echoes from deep in our past with their raucous, ritual plays. In a hundred pubs and squares the Turkish Knight (villain) will meet St George or King George (hero): after a few bragging exchanges the two will fight; the hero will be killed, and then revived by the Quack Doctor. Finally a hideously masked figure will announce himself:

"In comes I

Beelzebub,

Over my shoulder I

carries a club,

In my hand a

dripping pan;

Don't you think I'm a

jolly old man?"

In 10 or 12 minutes the little dramas will be over, and the players will shamelessly dun spectators for money. Then they will sing a wassail song, invoking good health, and get down to some serious imbibing.

The mummers' plays are so ancient that nobody is certain of their origins. Some people believe they date only from the 18th century, others that they derive from the 11th-century Crusades, and others still that they hark right back to Aristophanes in the fifth century BC.

Unlike Morris dancing, which died out in Victorian times and was revived in the Twenties, the plays seem to have been performed without a break. Certainly, 100 years ago they were used by poor country lads as an excuse for knocking on rich men's doors and earning a little Christmas money.

Their symbolism is equally obscure. Their main point is to celebrate the death of the old year and the birth of the new - but the function of Beelzebub is now lost, as is that of other minor characters such as Bolt Slasher, a gallant soldier, and Old Speckleback, "the biggest man in North Humberland".

Many of the plays open with a brief address by Father Christmas:

"In comes I, old Father Christmas; Christmas or not, I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot."

For audiences familiar with the text, half the fun lies in roaring out the best-known gags in concert with the actor. Thus when Father Christmas asks the Quack Doctor what he can cure, the answer is:

"The hitch, the stitch, the palsy and the gout, Pains within and pains without."

It is a thousand pities that the Oxford don RJE Tiddy did not live to complete his study of the plays. He collected many of the texts during the early years of this century, but was called up into the army and killed in the trenches in August 1916. The notes he left, plus the texts, were published in 1923, but, had he lived, he would undoubtedly have done more work.

That the mummers' tradition is alive and well in Gloucestershire is mainly due to the enthusiasm of Donald Workman, a forester by profession, and a man of wide-ranging imagination. His main aim now is "to make people feel they belong to the landscape". To this end he has boldly adapted this year's play in order to put fire into a huge, soulless estate of 4,000 new houses which sprawls across the hills at Eastcombe, near Stroud.

Together with a friend, Steve Rowley (a keen Morris dancer), he has "taken on the challenge of waking these people up" and, with the help of 20 pupils at Thomas Keble School, has built a 30ft dragon of bent hazel-rods and canvas. At six this evening, with him carrying the head, one helper to work the jaws, and seven more supporting segments, the beast will progress in a cacophony of drums, shakers and tin whistles across the estate to the green, where the Bold Slasher and St George will have been fighting.

The object, says Mr Workman, is for the dragon to symbolise all the latent energy in local young people. The message to the old fogeys - on this, St Thomas's day, the shortest of the year - is "You may put us down. But we'll come back and back".

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