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· Straw Memories,Wren Boys,Mummers,Christmas,Ugly Stick

Christmas, Wran Boys, Mummers and Mummering 

With lockdown restrictions easing last week, I was able to meet up with Michael Fortune again to chat about the traditions of the Christmas season. I’m going to come back to the jack-o-lanterns in another post, but I thought I’d jump ahead to line up with the Christmas festivities going on. I had been busy carving turnips and now watching with interest as they become strange shrivelled things – nature doing the final carving of their features! 

At our previous meeting, Michael had suggested I look up The Newfoundland Mummers Festival. Covid has made some things very hard but the fact that so many festivals have moved online meant I was able to attend some of the workshops they hosted from St. Johns. Michael had travelled over to the festival last year along with his family and had met many Wexford Irish descendants still celebrating traditions and taking part in customs that had travelled over with their grandparents and great-grandparents.

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Mummers in the Newfoundland Parade 2019

The mummers festival was founded in 2009, started life as a folklore project - “initially a joint initiative with the Intangible Cultural Heritage division of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial University’s Folklore Department. The initiative began in 2009 with the intention of passing along a well-researched model to a community group who would continue organizing the Mummers Festival.”1 A way of preserving and keeping a tradition alive and engaging the local community in it. It now is run by a group of volunteers and this year they are hosting Zoom workshops and a virtual parade. I really like that they have found a way of reinvigorating a tradition and making it accessible in a more urban environment – Mumming was dying out and had for many years been banned in Newfoundland because of an association with drink, and even violence, but this festival has started something new, drawing on an older tradition.

I wasn’t as organised for the workshops as I would have liked! The festival supplied workshop packs for locals in Newfoundland and gave a list of materials for international participants, but I hadn’t managed to round up all the materials. I decided however there was a gain to be had by taking part, taking notes, and enjoying the live experience. The two workshops I attended were the ‘ugly stick’ workshop and the ‘Hobby horse’ workshop – They focused on the construction and I was a little disappointed not to learn more about the traditions themselves during the workshops – only the mention that the ugly stick had come over with traditions from England.

Talking to Michael about them, I was thrilled to hear there was an Irishequivalent – a ‘Vizzarding stick’ - he even produced the one he had made with his three girls – a broom handle with wire loops stringed with bottle caps and a browning sprig of last years holly fastened to the top. He said it took many forms, but often a troupe of mummers would arrive at a house and the ‘Captain’ would announce their arrival with a bang of his stick on the door. He spoke of his mother going out ‘hunting the wran’ and ‘gugging for eggs ’ as a child, carrying a stick partially out of tradition but also as a form of protection should any of the older bigger children try to jump them and steal their collection. I decided I would make my own inspired by both the Newfoundland ugly stick and the vizzarding stick. I'll revisit the recordings of the workshops and make a variation of it.

Me with Michael's example  of a vizzarding stick and straw costumes

In Michael's archive with his example of a vizzarding stick and straw costumes

Michael is full of stories and information and it’s hard to put down a clear path of our conversation – we had touched on some of the subjects previously and its also hard to pin down a clear picture of mumming, it being so many different things. But we met on December 5th, St. Nicholas’ Eve, so we tried to keep the focus on the coming Christmas season, and looking at the important dates over the month of December guided our conversation and also the influence and similarities of traditions across Europe.

December 6th is the Feast if St. Nicholas and the night before, St. Nicholas’ Eve, is the night in Poland that St. Nicholas, the precursor to Santa Claus, left gifts for children in their shoes. We watched one of Michael’s interviews with a Polish family living in New Ross, Ireland, still observing these traditions. Small treats, sweets and chocolate were left in the shoes along with a potato – the size of which reflected how good you had been, the bigger the potato the more bad things you had done over the year.

We also watched a video of Polish Straw Boys – jumping ahead again in the calendar as this was recorded at Easter but Michael wanted to reiterate that so many of our Irish traditions are related to wider European practices and the similarity in the construction of costumes in Poland to Irish Straw boys and Mummers.

Throughout our conversations Michael is keen to promote new traditions arriving in Ireland as people move here and also the notion of allowing traditions to change and evolve if we are to keep them alive. He also has a great respect for small local traditions – and noted that many of us create our own customs around Christmas that might be very personal and limited to a few families. 

As we approach Christmas I hope to participate in some other traditions with Michael – possibly making some straw hats and costume and maybe going ‘hunting the wran’. In my other work, playing Mrs. Claus this year for an Online Santa experience, I get a little peek into current personal traditions – families wearing matching pyjamas, dressing in Christmas jumpers, welcoming an elf on the shelf into their home, leaving snacks out for Santa, and one I was introduced to last year, children leaving their ‘soother’ or ‘dodie’, a child’s pacifier, for Santa as they had grown up. My own family has always hung out stockings for Santa. That one tradition alone has created some odd little memories and little personal performative acts that I’m reminded of. My mother, friends and family all contributing to the knitting of a stocking over one day, when it was realised my youngest brother didn’t have one to hang out. When I got older I took on some of the stocking filling duties, even initiating my partner into it when he stayed with my family for Christmas, and it has continued even though my brother turned twenty-five this year. I think it is our way of holding onto memories of past Christmases and family members we have lost and miss at this time. 

The main Christmas performative traditions we discussed were the ‘Wran Boys’ and ‘Mummers’ and some of its forms. Many of these traditions were about collecting money – reflected now in the traditions still happening collecting for charity and Michael wondered whether the association with begging might be why some of them fell out of favour. In rural areas, he noted that these traditions allowed those better off to help out their poorer neighbours. He also noted that it was mainly men involved in these activities – but many of the revivals are a lot more inclusive. Michael showed me a video of a group in Ferns performing ‘Camán’ na mBan /The Hurley Dance’ - a girls set-dancing group borrowing a mummers set dance and replacing their traditional swords with wooden hurls.

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Wren Boys in Sandymount Co. Dublin, December 2019.

There is plenty out there about the traditions, and a lot more I want to investigate in more detail, but simply The Wran boys or Hunting the Wran involved a troupe going door to door, disguised in different bits of costume, presenting the Wran - or wren - that had been caught in a decorated bush or box, singing and causing mayhem and asking for a penny for the burial of the Wran. Immortalised in the song ‘The Wran, the wran, the king of all birds’. It is a tradition celebrated in many places in Europe, including Brittany, Wales and the Isle of Man. In Sandymount, near where I grew up in Dublin, there has been a concert of Wren Boys for many years – they look a lot like the mummers of Newfoundland, while The Wran Boys in Dingle Co. Kerry, wear straw hats and costume and process through the town.My father has been down to watch the Wren Boys in Sandymount many times, but I spent my teenage years a little embarrassed by him and his love of Irish music. Given the chance to go and see them, I unfortunately refused, a regret of mine now as I come to understand and appreciatethe traditions. My intention had been to finally take part this year, but it seems unlikely that the usual events will go ahead. 

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Wran Boys in Dingle Co. Kerry, possibly about 2013.

Mummers take a few different forms – akin to the Wran boys and the straw boys sometimes, set dancing traditions with similarities to morris dancing, and also in the form of a rhyming folk play – the Mummers of Fingal in Dublin carry this tradition on still as do some groups around Wexford. The traditional Mummers play involves archetypal characters of good and evil, a battle and the healing by a doctor – reflecting their origin in English customs with St. George featuring, but Irish plays often included characters like Colmcille, Brian Boru and Wolfe Tone. 

I'm currently reading 'All Silver and No Brass', a book documenting the mumming traditions in Fermanagh - it was written in the 1970's and is based on interviews with locals and reminds me a lot of what Michael Fortune does now using video and audio recording techniques. The book suffers slightly from a narrators overly reverent and nostalgic recanting of the scenes, an attempt to catch the person on paper, sometimes coming off a little quaint, while Michael's videos manages to capture the characters of the people describing the customs and traditions they remember.

We also discussed many of the traditions of decorating and bringing greenery into the house. Mentioning that Christmas trees were a relatively new thing in rural Ireland, maybe only making a mark in the last 40 years, we discussed holly and ivy – Michael said he had records of people using moss in the same way. 

The small personal performative tradition we discussed was lighting a candle on new years eve – The candle was a symbol that a stranger would be welcome should they call to the door, sometimes seen as a welcome to Joseph and Mary. We always did this at home when I was a child – My mothers parents were from Wexford and Cavan and I wonder if she adopted this tradition from one of them.