It seems that globalization has reduced the world to McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts, and in the transition we may have lost traditions that made each country unique in its customs. One such custom is The Mummers, a very Celtic custom and ancient one too.
Although we associated it with Halloween, other parts of the country went on the mummers on New Years Day. It is a day that has become mixed with older traditions such as Wren Day and Straw Boys, both of which I will write about in a future post. For us in south east Galway, Halloween was the night we went on the mummers.
The first time I heard the phrase “trick or treat” was while watching Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis. We did not “trick-or-treat” on Halloween in Ireland, not back in the 70’s or early 80’s. It wouldn’t make sense to say “trick-or-treat” anyway as no one gave sweets/candy to the children standing in the dark at the threshold of the front door.
We didn’t wear “costumes” that reflected major social events of the year almost past, and we didn’t buy masks either until the 80’s. That must have been when things started to transition.
We, at least those of us who grew up in the west of Ireland, did not go trick or treating, we went on the mummers. Our masks were usually an old pair of tights pulled over our heads, make-up applied grotesquely on top of it, we looked more like cross dressing bank robbers, come to think of it! We wore old ragged clothes for costumes. If we did wear masks they were more than likely made with newspaper shaped over a balloon and molded and formed into facial features with a mixture of papier-mâché. They were then painted and eyes cut in, these were the masks we wore.
The Mummers is a very Celtic tradition and is still practiced with Mummers Festivals throughout the world in regions that profess Celtic origins. Areas such as Newfoundland have such a festival and it is growing in popularity.
Seeing as Halloween, Samhain, is a tradition that was born of Ireland, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a resurgence in the traditional custom of Halloween, The Mummers. Instead of candy, sweets, traditionally we received money, mostly coins, and we went from door to door singing and playing musical instruments, reciting poetry or even telling stories. Then we went home, bobbed for apples, ate Barmbrack, played games with saucers of water, clay and a ring. Tell me if I missed one!
The custom of celebrating Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter. Cattle were slaughtered for the winter in order to prepare for the darker days ahead. Samhain is referenced in Irish myth as the day Cú Chulainn rode his chariot into battle.
In the picture to the left is the image of a crow, also associated with Samhain, an image of foreboding through out literature, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, in film, The Virgin Spring. There is also the film The Crow with Brandon Lee. If you can think of other examples, please let me know.The crow or raven is a symbol of death in both examples given. And isn’t it amazing that we call a large gathering of crows a murder of crows?
In Irish Mythology Macha, an Irish goddess of war and horses, appeared to Cú Chulainn in the shape of a crow and told him he would die in battle. That is why the statue of Cú Chulainn at the General Post Office in Dublin shows him falling, with a crow on his shoulder.
Wouldn’t it be great to see a return to the tradition of the mummers in Ireland, like the growing Mummers Festival in Newfoundland? It is traditions like the mummers that make a culture unique. Yes we can hold onto McDonald’s, Burger King, Star Bucks and you can still enjoy your Dunkin Donuts, but why should globalization alter unique holidays and customs? Don’t buy the mask, make it! Don’t go trick or treating, go on the mummers!