A VISIT FROM SLIGO'S CHRISTMAS MUMMERS; also: STRAWBOYS: What are they?
Death and Resurrection
As the days grew shorter and shorter approaching the winter solstice it seemed to our remote ancestors that the waning sun was in imminent danger of disappearing altogether. In earlier times human or animal sacrifice was offered to placate the gods. When this ceased people knew that something had to be done that would please these all-powerful, mysterious deities so they would restore the light, allow the days to lengthen and the forces of normality rebirth and regrowth to return.
At Newgrange in the Boyne valley the shaft of light entering the chamber on the shortest day of the year did the trick. From time immemorial in Ireland the Christmas Mummers have practised sympathetic magic to achieve the same result. Following the struggle between the two hero figures, representing the fight between the forces of light and darkness, one falls to the ground. He represents the death of the old year. Dr Brown arrives and by his magical incantations cures the fallen body. He can achieve any consequence he desires simply by simulating the problem, treating it, and transferring the desired result by a process of cause and effect to the dysfunctional unit: in this case the movement of the sun and planets. This is why Mummers go out only during the Solstice/Christmas season.
In medieval times the winter struggle between dark and light was represented in plays. Those plays, which are believed to have their origins in the second millennium B.C., have come down to us today in the form of Mummers and Wren Boys. Their are very few Mummers groups in Ireland now and, despite the adage: "Don't make a custom or break a custom", fewer still who keep the tradition as it was handed to us. Taking their name from the 'Fairy Whirlwind' of Irish folklore our Sligo 'Sidhe Gaoithe' Mummers is one of the very few that is part of that unbroken living link. Mummers are often confused with Strawboys as some groups wear straw. However this is not traditional except for one character 'Jack Straw' (See note on Strawboy tradition at bottom of page). Some Mummer groups dance around the midsummer bonefire but, as the very essence of the Christmas mummers is involved with death of the old year and revival of the new, this is just ridiculous!
My mother mixed the dough for our Christmas cake on the kitchen table. Back then, Halloween and Christmas were the only times of the year when we were sure to have raisin bread. My chin reaching just over the top of the table, I watched in mouth watering anticipation.
Out of the dark night
Suddenly a loud rat-tat-tat on the front door startled the gathering. ‘Any room for Mummers,’ a strident, rough voice outside the door demanded. ‘Aah, it’s only the Mummers,’ my mother said. ‘Come in,’ she smiled, facing to the door, ‘Ta failte romhaimh.’
"grotesque shadows pirouetting"
"I’m bonny brave Brian Boru
But Brodur the dirty young pup
A warrior-like figure dashes in and recites:
For whenever commotion broke out
Brian Boru mortally wounded
"the plague within, the plague without
Feigning uncertainty the Captain asked:
"What medicine do you use, Sir?"
Like an African witch doctor the strange medicine man pranced and gyrated and claimed that he cured with:
"the foo of the fee and the hillis the bee
The dead man rose up from the floor, Devil Doubt produced an accordeon, and the strange company played and danced around the floor. After awhile they passed an old tin box, collecting a few coins from the people of the house before dancing out into the darkness rhyming:
"We are the neighbours childer
That first experience of the Christmas Mummers has etched itself on my memory as in a photograph. The custom is not as popular as it once was, but in North Sligo, and in some other parts of Ireland, we still carry on this ancient tradition handed down from one generation to another. There is nothing in today’s extravagant holiday festivities to match that simple Christmas visit of long ago so vividly imprinted on a child’s imagination!
"Strawboys" go out at all times of the year, but only to weddings. Taking their name from their disguise Strawboys are an ancient wedding tradition the origins of which are unclear. Strawboys are recognisable by their uniquely shaped conical straw hats and dress and, despite their title, nowadays comprise both men and women. Although sometimes worn by Mummers, straw hats are incorrect dress for this play and not in keeping with tradition.
Beware of imitations. The true mummers go with their madcap revelry at Christmas and celebrate the winter solstice in the way of always. Strawboys in straw dress go out to weddings all through the year. Wrenboys go out on St. Stephen's night.
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