Mummers, Old Horses and the Treasure Trove of Folklore

Ken Lymer

As winter descends upon us, it is that time of year with deep connections to folkloric traditions. 

The word ‘folk lore’ was originally coined in 1846 by the antiquary William John Thoms. During his time the ‘folk’ were considered to be illiterate peasants and their stories and customs were looked down upon as quaint relics of the past. By the late 19th century, however, the study of folklore became a serious field of scholarship and academics today consider it to be an important source of information about people’s lives. Moreover, folkloric insights can provide a valuable asset to writers looking to enrich the backdrop of their stories.

a local legend or folk tale can provide the writer with an intimate narrative of past events

Writers have also drawn upon folklore over the centuries through the common literary device of ‘a tale within a tale’. One example, in tune with the winter season, is found in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) which relates a tale of two brothers who haunted King’s Hintock Court. They were exorcised by a priest but returned to the Court at the pace of a rooster every New Year’s Day – thus accounting for the local saying, “On new-year’s tide, a cock’s stride”. Therefore, a local legend or folk tale can provide the writer with an intimate narrative of past events presented in conversational mode. The narrator could retell the tale in a detached manner or it can be used to reveal a dark secret about a character. This use of folklore also creates different voices within the text, while additionally offering alternative points of view. 

Folklore can be used to accentuate important social issues of the day.

Folk tales and fairy lore present situations that confound and contradict the established order. This is exemplified by the ghost story, such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1849), where the belief in spirits is inevitably at odds with the rationality of a protagonist. This famous tale, however, also demonstrates folklore can be used to accentuate important social issues of the day.

Moreover, the use of legends and fairy tales provide exciting frontiers in writing which connect to the mysterious and fantastic. In his later article entitled Frauds on the Fairies (1853), Dickens additionally advocated fairy tales were vital to the utilitarian age of the 19th century which risked losing touch with the realms of imagination. 

by the 17th century the practise of mumming became associated with carousing in alehouses at Christmas. 

Yuletide is associated with the famous tradition of mummers’ plays. They are part and parcel of the folkloric experience of live performance entailing a different form of storytelling. In Britain, mummers are a small troupe of players who perform comical plays in the street, at people’s houses or in the pub. The term ‘mummer’ itself comes from medieval times and by the 17th century the practise of mumming became associated with carousing in alehouses at Christmas. A repertoire of written mummers’ plays emerged during the 18th century which followed standardised plots. Their heyday was the late 19th century up to the World War I as they were performed across the country from Cornwall to the Shetlands. 

it ( the story) was dynamically adapted to the circumstances of live performance

Mumming was a way for actors to raise money for themselves during Yule. Each village had its own troupe that performed a humorous variation of the mock battle between a hero (Saint George) and a scoundrel (Turkish Knight or Slasher). The slain hero was then brought back to life by a quack doctor. Other minor characters may also appear including Little Johnny Jack and his family on the back, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and Devil Doubt. There was no fixed structure to the story as it was dynamically adapted to the circumstances of live performance. These plays lacked any inclination to produce an authentic historical setting, as this was street theatre in its rawest form. 

©Ken Lymer

Another Yuletide performance features the Hooden Horse (Kent) or ‘Owd ‘Oss (Derbyshire, Yorkshire) and this was popular among particular counties during the 19th century up to the early 20th century. It entails a group of players interacting with a prop horse head which was made of a block of wood placed on a stick. It had a clacking jaw operated by someone stooping under a cloth. The troupe would sing a song about a dying Old Horse and provide comic scenes by trying to whip the hooden horse or mount the operator. 

In the 1720s it was recorded in the Isle of Man that May Day celebrations did not only involve the Queen of the May but also the Queen of Winter. The Queen of May was selected from the daughters of wealthy farmers, while the Queen of Winter was a man dressed in woman’s clothing. A retinue accompanied both Queens and these two opposing fractions engaged in a mock battle. A drag Queen of Winter provides a refreshingly different scenario to Santa and his sleigh. 

Folk sayings provide gems of creative inspiration.

Folk sayings also provide gems of creative inspiration. For instance, the old English word for pluck is ‘plot’ and is associated with adages about snow. In north Lincolnshire it was said that Th’ ohd woman is shakkin’ her feather poäke (her sack of feathers). Meanwhile, in Alnwick, Northumberland, it was sung, The folk in the eas’ is plotin their geese, An’ sendin their feathers ti huz. 

Sources of folklore are easy to find. Visit a library and pour over books in the local studies section. Trawl the web for different scholarly sites which provide public access to collections, such as the Folk Play archive of mummers’ plays. One could also join a society that offers public lectures and newsletters packed full of information like the Folklore Society of London, which was founded in 1878. Among its past members were the eminent fairy tale scholars Andrew Lang and Katherine Briggs, whilst today the author of the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett, is an honorary member. You do not have to be an academic to join, as anyone with a passion for folklore can become a member of this and other venerable societies. 

Folklore taps into traditions important to our creative expressions which can provide new meanings to the present, while harking back to the past. So, go out and discover the treasure trove of folklore and set your imagination on fire this winter season!  

Ken Lymer is an archaeologist and folklore enthusiast with aspirations of becoming a children’s book illustrator and writer. He has designed and illustrated teacher’s packs for schools (History Key Stages 1 to 3) ranging on topics from Celtic cauldrons and Roman bath-houses to Benedictine monasteries and the dissolution of Abbeys during late Tudor times. These also feature entertaining games designed by Ken including Dragons & Ladders and Tudor trump cards.


  1. AHHHH! my very absolute favourite yuletide tradition. Thanks so much for this post, and for spreading the word of a very little-known tradition!

    Here is a blog post and some pictures I took of a New Year's mumming in Kent in 2009 - was so delighted to stumble across this performance:

    And here are pictures of ME in the Folklore Dept. at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, costumed for various roles in the play they used to do there:

    1. Fantastic mumming pictures, Elizabeth!
      Thank you!

  2. Having taken my class to the pantomime this morning, it males me wonder if the 'Winter Queen' was the fore 'mother' to the pantomime dame? Oh no she isn't! Oh yes she... sorry, don't know what came over me ;-)

  3. Fascinating, Ken. A man in drag as the Queen of the Winter is not something I've come across before.

    Very enjoyable article.

  4. Really interesting article. Well done, Ken

  5. bring back the Queen of Winter in drag, fascinating read, from Shaun


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