The Bizarre ‘Mumming’ History of Thanksgiving Masking

Posted on: November 24th, 2021 at 5:04 am by

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Bain News Service Collection

What follows is a reworking of a post originally published on Bowery Boogie in 2014.

There was once a time when Thanksgiving customs more resembled Halloween masquerading than traditional turkey and history lessons. That’s right. So get out your masks, people! Thanksgivoween is upon us.

Two key words: masking and mumming. To surmise thousands of years of he said/he said, most agree the word “masking” encompasses all forms of dressing up in masks or garb: mumming, masquerades, caroling, wassailing (more on that below) etc.

The etymology of mummers traces to Middle High German, Middle English, New High German et. al. Definitely a linguistic toe to toe.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Mumming can be traced back – and I do mean way back – to the 1300s. Mummers across the pond spent their time performing plays and singing, getting drunk and lascivious, gambling and cheating. But it was all meant in jest until one too many aristocrats were scammed out of gold and gems by mummers’ loaded dice. In 1418, a law was passed in France forbidding “mumming, plays, interludes or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment. I’m going to skip several centuries in Europe (because this is not a book) and head over to the 18th in good ol’ Murica: the City of Brotherly Love and its  Mummer’s Parade. I haven’t used Old Faithful in a while so:

Mummers plays were performed in Philadelphia in the 18th century as part of a wide variety of working class street celebrations around Christmas. By the early 19th century, it coalesced with two other New Year customs, shooting firearms, and the Pennsylvania German custom of “belsnickling” (adults in masks questioning children about whether they had been good during the previous year). Through the 19th century, large groups of disguised (often in blackface) working class young men roamed the streets on New Year’s Day, organizing “riotous” processions, firing weapons into the air, and demanding free drinks in taverns, and generally challenging middle and upper-class notions of order and decorum. Unable to suppress the custom, by the 1880s the city government began to pursue a policy of co-option, requiring participants to join organized groups with designated leaders who had to apply for permits and were responsible for their groups actions. By 1900, these groups formed part of an organized, city-sanctioned parade with cash prizes for the best performances.

About 15,000 mummers now perform in the parade each year. They are organized into four distinct types of troupes: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. All dress in elaborate costumes. There is a Mummers Museum dedicated to the history of Philadelphia Mummers.

Go check it out if you’re in the area. The parade takes place on New Year’s Day.

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