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".

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Officer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Trainee Teacher - Maths

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organization is the larges...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor