MUMMERS, bands of men and women in medieval and later England and elsewhere, who, during periods of public festivity, particularly at Christmas, dressed in fantastic clothes and wearing masks or disguised as animals, serenaded the people outside their houses or joined in the revels within. In a more restricted sense the term is applied to the actors in the old English rural folk-plays of St George, etc.; and "mumming" thus becomes a contemptuous synonym for any form of stageplaying. The origin of the word mummer (older spelling " mommer," Fr. momeur) is not satisfactorily explained; but the verb " to mum" means both to mutter and to be silent, and " mummer " apparently comes from one or both of these senses. Mumming seems to have been a survival of the Roman custom of masquerading during the annual orgies of the Saturnalia. " The disguisyng and mummyng that is used in Christemase tyme," Langley writes in his synopsis of Polydore Virgil, " in the Northe partes came out of the feasts of Pallas, that were done with visars and painted visages, named Quinqatria of the Romaynes." Aubanus, writing of mumming in Germany, says that " in the Saturnalia there were frequent and luxurious feastings amongst friends, presents were mutually sent, and changes of dress made: that Christians have adopted the same customs, which continue to be used from the Nativity to the Epiphany: that exchanges of dress too, as of old among the Romans, are common, and neighbours by mutual invitation visit each other in the manner which the Germans call mummery." Christmas was the grand season for mumming in England. Some were disguised as bears, others as unicorns, or wore deer's hide and antler's or ram's horns. Mumming led to such outrages that Henry VIII. issued a proclamation declaring the wearing of a mask or disguise a misdemeanour. Stow gives an account of an elaborate mummery held in 1377 by the London citizens to amuse the son of the Black Prince, then living at Kennington (Survey, 1603, p. 97). In Scotland, where mumming still exists at Christmas, Hogmanay, New Year's Day and Handsel Monday, mummers are called " guisards." They usually present on these four nights a rude drama called Galatian, which, in various versions, is common throughout the Lowlands of Scotland (see Chambers's Popular Rhymes, p. 170).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)