Mumming goes back to medieval times and was performed by the farm workers around the Christmas and New Year period. The timing varies from region to region as does the content of the play, but it has a theme of a sword fight and a doctor who brings the slain soldier back to life.
The origins of the word “Mumming” is not clear, there are many differing views. Many of the mummers were in disguise, probably so they were not recognised, as it was a form of begging. The likely origin of the word is from the High German vermummen (“to wrap up, to disguise, to mask ones faces”) We do not go in disguise (apart from our Father Christmas!) as we are quite happy for people to recognise us and feel going in disguise can be a little scary for the audience.
Mumming was a way of raising money and the play was taken round the big houses. Most Southern English versions end with the entrance of “Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back”. Johnny, first asks for food and then more urgently for money. Johnny Jack’s wife and family were either dolls in a model house or sometimes a picture. We do not pocket the money like the early mummers, we collect for charity.