These were an institution here in earlier times, but for some years past nothing has been seen or heard of them. They were, known as "The Christmas Boys." They used to go round to the "big houses," where they usually gave their performance in the kitchen. They wore rough helmets, covered (as indeed were their whole persons) with long strips of many coloured paper. Their performance never varied. It was a sort of Play of the rudest and most primitive description. Armed each with a wooden sword they marched up and down the room for about ten minutes, speaking not a word but crossing their swords as they met each other. Then the "Play" began in earnest.
Robert Hall (see earlier) at the age of 90 told me all he could remember - just scraps and bits of what the Play was like. I believe it was traditional, never committed to writing ; but handed down from father to son since the middle ages. This is what he remembers :-
(Enter Father Christmas)
"Here comes I, old Father Christmas
Welcome, or welcome not,
And I hope that old Father Christmas
May never be forgot."
(Enter Johnnie Jack)
"Here comes I, little Johnnie Jack
With my wife and family at my back."
(He carried a sack supposed to contain these personages).
(Enter Beau Slasher)
"Here comes I, Beau Slasher,
Beau Slasher is my name,
I've been in many battles
But always won the game."
Johnnie Jack and Beau Slasher engage in mortal conflict. Johnnie Jack is left for dead upon the ground.
Then Father Christmas exclaims :
"Is there 'ere a Doctor to be found ?
(Enter a Doctor)
"I can cure he."
"You talks pretty big, what about your pay ?"
"About £5 is my pay. I've got a little bottle in my waistcoat pocket, as will cure the itch, the palsy and gout, or the pains as goes in and out."
"Thee be'est a clever Doctor !"
He administers the contents of the little bottle, whereupon "Little Johnnie Jack" is restored to life again.
In the National Encyclopaedia I found the following :-
"These were masked plays of the middle ages. The word is from the old French Mommeur, and comes from an old Teutonic word, Mumine a mask.
"Mummings were generally very splendid pageants. A magnificent entertainment of this sort was given by the City of London in 1377 to Richard II just before his ascession. In Fabian's Chronicle we read how in Henry the fourth's reign provision was made for a great Dysguysynge or Mumming to the king on Twelfth Night."
Since the foregoing was written I have, through the medium of "Notes and Queries," obtained some interesting information on the subject of Mumming. It is referred to as the strangest and quaintest of all the old customs, and it still survives in some corners of the Isle of Wight.
The Play was called "The Christmas Boys." It was written in broad dialect with many touches of humour, and was performed with all the solemn seriousness of the amateur by the village rustics in tavern and hall at Christmastide.
"The framework of this piece seems to date from the Crusades ; but various historical events and heroic characters have since been incorporated into the dialogue."
Father Christmas is the first to enter, with these words (much as the old man here gave them to me) :-
"Here comes I, wold Father Crismus,
Welcome or welcome not,
And I hopes wold Father Crismus
Will never be forgot.
And now I'm come I han't got long to stay,
But my sons and I will make a little spoort
Avore we goes away
But if you don't like to hear what I've got to say
Step in, my braave *King George, and clear the way."
Each character before leaving the stage always introduces his successor in this artless manner.
At the close of the play before the laughter has died away, Father Christmas returns to pronounce the epilogue :
"Here comes I, wold, poor and mean,
And hardly worthy to be seen.
Roast beef, plum pudden and Crismus pie
Who likes that better than my sons and I ?
A jug of your good Crismus ale
Wull make us dance and zing
And money in our pockets is a very fine thing.
Now all o' you ladies and gennelmen that have
Heerd my sons' voices ring
Jest drop a few ha'pence in my wold hat
And you shall hear us zing
God save the King."
*St. George was here meant, and reference is afterwards made to a "viery dragon."
A collection and an impromptu sing-song follow.
An illustration of Hampshire dialect about 18 years ago,
I was greeted by the following when visiting one of the old villagers :-
"I seed 'ee acumin' athurt they turmits."