In 1808 Sir Walter Scott pined for the days of “Merry England” in his Christmas poem “Marmion”. He mused wistfully for the time when,
“Old Christmas brought his sports again.”
“Merry England” is a romanticised depiction of early Elizabethan England, when the country experienced a tranquil state of stability and homogeneity. This weakened over successive regimes, and was even destroyed in the spare years of Cromwell. After the Restoration traditions were revived, including the ones that occurred over Christmas.
The Victorians were the most enthusiastic revivalists of Christmas traditions. They invented “Father Christmas” as a personification of Christmas values. He represents charity, generosity and is a benevolent presence for young children. Other traditions resumed and some still survive today, one is the reintroduction of “Mummers Plays”.
These take place on Boxing Day as part of a community festivity. Mummers are masked performers who re-enact famous battles from history but with theatrical licence.
These are still performed today in numerous villages across England, but the tone of the plays are much closer to Pantomime rather than serious drama. The irreverence contrasts sharply with the “mystery plays” which are traditionally performed over Easter. These are faithful renditions of the Death and Resurrection of Christ and have been performed across the country since the sixteenth century.
In spite of the frivolity some are inclined to take the Boxing Day events far too seriously. This became clear during a Mummers Play performance in Clun, on the Welsh borders. When the scene of St. George`s death was re-enacted a woman in the audience became so overwhelmed with emotion she threw herself upon St. George in an attempt to preserve his life.
We need to acknowledge the strength of affection that many of us share for our past and our rituals. Without our culture and traditions we will have no sense of identity or even meaning in our lives. These things are more important now than at any other time in our history.