Mummer's the Word
Mummer may be the word, but if you ask my three-year-old, it’s a little more like “freaky.” He shied away from the costumed men parading in down Main Street during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. He asked me if the men suited in traditional Mummer-finery thought it was Halloween. (I think his exact words were: “What the? Halloween?”)
Mummers and the practice of Mummering were popular through the mid 1800s in the northeastern United States. Although the custom has ancient origins, most of the men participating in the pageantry in the U.S. weren’t aware of that fact, according to Jim Johnson, who is senior manager of creative programs at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
Young men in villages dressed in costumes and masks, and went door to door. They would sing and dance, ask for food and drink, and if they weren’t given any, they’d come in and take it. Costumes were elaborate, often outlandish and grotesque, and to add to the fun, people pretended they didn't recognize each other.
Jim said that it was a practice primarily among the lower class, and a premise of the activity was role and class reversal.
Mummering reached a pinnacle in the years before the Civil War, but at that time, Christmas in general was celebrated very differently compare with what we know of the holiday today. In some areas of the country, it was a rather raucous holiday celebrated by men taking to the streets.
“If someone from that era was dropped into today's New Year's Eve celebrations in larger cities - with people gathering and shouting in the streets - they would indeed recognize that kind of holiday celebration,” Jim explained.
Mummering died out before it made its way to Michigan. “By the time we were celebrating Christmas here - Mummering was something that was not a part of it,” Jim said.
The costumes worn by the Mummers in Greenfield Village are inspired by
illustrations and written accounts from the middle 1800s. Jim shared the above
image of costumed paraders marching; it’s from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,
Jan. 18, 1862.
To get a flavor of the fun and spectacle of the custom, the description from the paper offers more detail of the practice and of the dress donned by the participating Mummers:
The 44th New York was encamped around Hall's Hill in present-day Arlington. The men found an interesting way to celebrate the holiday by organizing "a burlesque parade":
All of the officers gave over their commands to the men. Bob Hitchcock, a member of the band, whose avoirdupois was about 300 pounds, was duly promoted and mustered as Colonel of the parade. He was dressed in a manner becoming his high rank. He was mounted upon a horse that surpassed in inferiority the famous Rozinante [Don Quixote's horse]. He rode with his face turned toward the horse's tail so that he might at all times watch his command. The horse was embellished with a pair of trousers on his fore legs, and a pair of drawers on his hind legs. . . The men were uniformed in most dissimilar and fantastic garbs. As a whole the rank and file easily surpassed Falstaff and his famous command. The commands given and the manner of their execution were unprecedented and quaint. The tactics of Scott, Hardee and Casey would be searched in vain to find precedent for those impromptu evolutions. The dress parade which followed was unique in its dissimilarity from anything promulgated in army regulations. No words can describe it. Frank Leslie's Illustrated paper only faintly depicted a short section of it but it lingers in the memory like a bright spot in that winter's experience of army life. (Nash 56.)
You can see the cage-like skirt on the Greenfield Village Mummer on the right was inspired by the 1862 illustration.
Mummer costumes were creatively made with whatever household materials available. The gentleman pictured above uses a quilt for a cape.
Inspired by the rowdy reputation of Mummers of days gone by, the village masqueraders boldly address visitors to Holiday Nights and aren’t the least bit camera shy for those who want to take home a souvenir of their encounter.
Philadelphia still honors the Mummering tradition with an annual New Year’s Day Mummers Parade – the oldest folk parade in the country. The glamorous and elaborate costumes for the parade have evolved greatly and bear little resemblance to the historic Mummer costumes represented at Greenfield Village.
19th century, holidays, Holiday Nights, Greenfield Village, events, Christmas