Last night at The Keep pub in Guildford saw the local leg of the launch do for my new book, Hark! The Biography of Christmas. We carolled, we caroused, we conquered. There was much (early) festive rejoicing – plus for good measure, a pub landlady who hates Christmas (especially on October 2nd). If you’d like to join for the London version of this, it’s on Wed 11th October 2017, and you just need email to be on the free list – details here. For the London book launch, I’ve picked the nearest bookshop to Dickens’ house. Seems apt.
Why did I pick The Keep pub for the Guildford event? Well, it’s in the book. In researching the history of Christmas, I discovered that King Edward III celebrated Christmas 1348 in Guildford, from Halloween to Candlemas (a.k.a. Groundhog Day), with a vast Roman Saturnalia-themed season-long party. There were masks and costumes for eighty people, dressed in animal skins and a generous amount of cross-dressing. Guildford hasn’t changed much.
Alright, Edward III didn’t celebrate at The Keep pub as far as we know, but he did enjoy a medieval mummers play. Who doesn’t love a bit of mumming? These ancient plays are still performed today, so if you pick the right pub near you, you can find a local performance of one this very Christmas, possibly on Twelfth Night. Go see! And that’s where The Keep comes in.
It was on Old Twelvy Night this year that I visited The Keep (or I could have visited The Star, The Royal Oak, The Angel Hotel…) to witness The Pilgrim Morris Men perform Guildford’s own mummers play. As to what a mummers play is exactly, well maybe we’ll find out on the next blog post. This time, here’s my summary of events that evening, back in my local on January 6th this year, and every year…
✧ WASSAILS NOT JANUARY SALES… The High Street may look like a commercial jungle, but look to the pubs and you’ll and the community. They vary nationwide, but in the Surrey town of Guildford, the mummers’ play tours five pubs each Twelfth Night, a half-hour performance in each. Most pub-goers have no clue what’s about to happen; in ours, a policeman thinks his retirement party has booked it all just for him.
✧ VERY FANCY DRESS… In the summer, they’re Morris dancers; in midwinter, they’re mummers. Replete with rainbow-coloured costumes, from Mad Hatter to a green Father Christmas, dozens of dressed-up (often well-oiled) wassailers fill the pub. It’s a health and safety nightmare: sloshing alcohol, flammable costumes, the odd candle, a packed pub… in fact many can’t fit in and shiver outside like the little match-girl – but at least they’ll be first in the next pub.
✧ PANTO MEETS PUB CRAWL… Most are following rather than performing, but they sing heartily and quaff from tankards they’ve brought specially. Ours is their second pub of the night, and some stops have variations. The first pub, The Star, saw the Twelfth Cake shared out; I’m told that Colin found a bean in his slice, crowning him Colin II, King of Misrule for the next few hours. The third pub features extended carolling, and I get the impression that by the fifth pub, The Royal Oak, the play will have evolved from The Star’s sober performance.
✧ DRINKHAIL!… The wassail bowl is passed around. I of course take a sip, much to the eye-rolling of my wife, already fearing whatever seasonal virus we’ll all share, before she takes a drink too.
✧ I KNOW THIS ONE… The half-hour pop-up performance is like an ancient flashmob, opened, closed, and middled with carols. Some have familiar words, some do not. None have familiar tunes. Yet the regular mummers (some of whom may have enjoyed eighty or more Old Twelvy Nights) don’t waver. By the eighth or ninth verse, I nail the tune too. I couldn’t sing “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” to any other tune now. I’m surprised to see so much Christian tradition: even unfamiliar carols feature Jesus and Mary, as well as yes, holly, ivy, the wassail bowl, and a maid in a lily-white smock. Oh my.
✧ ANCIENT AND MODERN… The wassailing shows no signs of waning. Smartphones and our love of tech may keep many of us at home, but we still crave community. As we sing, selfies are taken, group photos are posted to Instagram, and there’s the joyous sight of a face-painted, bearded seventy-year-old in tinsel hat and outlandish outfit, reading the half-millennium-old “Boar’s Head Carol” from his illuminated iPad.
✧ THE PLAY’S THE THING… As for the play itself, like all mummers’ plays it’s a variation on a theme. The words may change, but the characters and loose storyline are pretty much the same. Overacting is essential, cheers and jeers from the crowd are encouraged, and if you can see or hear what’s going on then that’s a bonus (or not, depending on the acting). I’ll be there again next year. Wassail!
So cheers to The Keep, the other pubs, The Pilgrim Morris Men and all those that keep the tradition alive. And maybe after the London leg of the book launch, right by Dickens’ house, we’ll explore something of Mr Dickens himself.
Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available in all good online bookstores, my car boot, and hopefully some shops, priced £7.99