Christmas in many guises


‘Well, I’ll do my best little man, I have no idea what a sucky fish is.’


‘All I want for Christmas Santa is a proper hat rather than having to share this with the teapot.’

When I asked at the weekend for Christmas stuff for the blog, I never expected such an embarrassment of riches; not only did a certain reader (I’ll let you lot guess who) send me the above images of himself with Santa Claus – possibly at Grays in Walsall, but John and Paul Anslow have hit upon something that I think has a wider significance than they might imagine.

The Anlslow brothers discuss here the practice of ‘Guising’ in Walsall Wood, which I believe to be a local term, but part of the wider history of Mumming. This theatrical activity – of staging short, fun and impromptu plays and performances, often in disguise, dates back a long way.

The site WhyChristmas has this to say about Mumming:

Mumming is also an ancient pagan custom that was an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas! It means ‘making diversion in disguise’. The tradition was that men and women would swap clothes, put on masks and go visiting their neighbors, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a silly plot. The leader or narrator of the mummers was dressed as Father Christmas.

The custom of Mumming might go back to Roman times, when people used to dress up for parties at New Year. It is thought that, in the UK, it was first done on St. Thomas’s day or the shortest day of the year.

Different types of entertainments were done in different parts of the UK In parts of Durham, Yorkshire and Devon a special sword dance was performed. There were also different names for mumming around the UK too. In Scotland it was known as ‘Gusards’ in Somerset, ‘Mumping’, in Warwickshire or ‘Thomasing’ and ‘Corning’ in Kent.

There have been great moves to preserve Mumming in recent years, with events all over the country; I know there have been good shows in Lichfield and Walsall, and some occasionally take place in Birmingham over the post-Christmas period.

I find myself wondering if Guising, Mumming and Pantomime are all interrelated.


From the BBC website: ‘Participants in a Mummers play in the 1930s, featuring the characters: Scots & Scars, The Doctor, Saint George, Bold Slasher, Grandfather Christmas, Johnny Jack and The Turkish Knight.’

One of the finest exponents of the Mumming tradition in the UK is folk musician Pete Coe, whose track ‘Bring the New Year in’ from the Long Company album features remarkably similar themes to the ones described by John and Paul below. I’ve embedded the track in the post so you can listen.

If the name Pete Coe rings a faint bell, he was the chap that made such a remarkable job of Dave Bilston’s ‘The Fireman’s Song’, featured earlier in the year.

If you have any knowledge or contributions to add to this subject of Mumming, Guising or suchlike, please do comment. I know Gerald Reece, a noted folk musician as well as local historian started his historical quest looking for a musical tradition in our area, and if he’s passing I’d be glad to hear his views.

You can comment here, or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

Finally, before I get on with John and Paul’s article, I’d like to wish both of them a merry Christmas and a peaceful, contented and prosperous New Year. As I’ve pointed out before, they’ve made excellent contributions to our record of local history and have created so much interest and debate here on the blog – working on, and contributing to many absolutely remarkable articles on Walsall Wood history over the years here; from the movers and boneshakers of times passed, to the solemn gravity of child labour.

Thanks, chaps.


Alvechurchbells have a great modern Mumming and Morris company. Click on the image to visit their gallery of recent plays.

John Anslow wrote:

Hello Bob,

Your request for contributions with a Christmas theme set Paul and me reminiscing about a story that our mother told us, and which might interest you and your readers.

Mother was born at Deepmore farm, Walsall Wood in 1924 but by the late 1920s her family had moved to Aldridge. One Christmas, around 1930, she and her mother returned to The Wood to visit Mrs Griffiths of Camden Street; this lady had been poorly and had taken to her bed in a downstairs room.

After a while, a knock at the door announced the arrival of a group of young boys: these were the guisers, who called every year at Christmas, and Mrs Griffiths insisted they be admitted.

They were dressed in costumes improvised from old clothes, some had their faces blackened with burnt cork, and one carried a melodeon. They performed a short play, each guiser reciting his well-rehearsed part from memory, and ended with a song. After this, they passed round the hat and made a cheerful and respectful exit.

It was only years later that my mother discovered that the boy with the melodeon was her future husband, Bernard Anslow, who lived with his brother and widowed mother on Walsall Road.

Even in his eighties, Dad could remember snatches of the play and I regret not having written down what he recited. I did, however, find this Burntwood Guisers’ Play after an Internet search, and the text does seem very familiar, with characters such as ‘Enter-In’, ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Old Beelzebub’ being virtually identical to those Dad spoke of.

Pete Coe’s ‘Brint the New Year in’ contains themes John and Paul will recognise – it’s a Mummer’s song.

Dad told us that as well as visiting private houses, the guisers would tour the pubs, where they usually received a warm welcome. On one occasion, however, a visit to public bar of The Hawthorn Tree (now The Drunken Duck) was met with a churlish response from one toper who lashed out at the lads as he pushed past them and, in so doing, hit Dad’s melodeon. Now, this was a cherished possession that had belonged to his recently dead father and incensed, the young lad placed a well-aimed kick on the curmudgeon’s backside, to the cheers of the other drinkers who were subsequently more than usually generous when the hat was passed round.

The Burntwood Guisers’ Play, which we think is more or less the one Dad and his friends performed, ends with the following round:

The cock sat up in the yew tree,
The hen came cackling by,
I wish you a merry Christmas
And a big fat pig in the stye (sic).

This reference to ‘a big fat pig’ would not have been as whimsical as it seems today because quite a few Walsall Wood families, my father’s included, would have kept pigs. These were fattened throughout the year and slaughtered towards Christmas; the cured meat then provided the family with food during the winter months.

Nothing was wasted, and Dad often used to tell Paul and me how almost every part of the animal was eaten including the trotters, ears, tails, stomach (hodge) and small intestine (chitterlings). The layers of fat were rendered into different grades of lard, depending on where it was taken from, and the blood was mixed with cereal (groats) and fat to make black pudding.

Eliza Anslow and Abe

A 1920s picture Eliza Anslow, and her brother, Abe, with a whole lot of bacon. Image kindly supplied by John and Paul Anslow.

I commented last January on your piece about Headley’s shop about how our grandfather, the coalminer Abe Anslow, had an arrangement with Mr. Headley enabling him to buy animal feed on credit during the desperate times of the mid 1920s and repaying the debt in meat when he slaughtered a pig.

Paul found this cracked and dog-eared snapshot of Dad’s mother, Eliza Anslow, and her brother, Abe, with one of their pigs. It was taken behind the terrace where they lived on Walsall Road, roughly where Select Windows and Doors stands today. We think it dates from around the time of the General Strike in 1926.

This is all that Paul and I know about guising, Bob, and we wonder, if some of your readers might enlighten us about how widespread the tradition was and when it came to an end. Hope this is of interest.

Wishing you a very merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


John Anslow

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7 Responses to Christmas in many guises

  1. Pedro says:

    In the Ripponden video the chap tells us that modern research can’t find Mummers plays being performed before 1750…

    Lichfield Mercury of December 1924 has a short piece which tells of Stow, recording in his Survey of London around 1377, that a “mummerie” play was performed for the Prince who would become Richard II….also that Henry VIII made an ordinance against Mumming.

    In the May 1923 FW Hackwood, in his Superstitions and Folk Lore of Staffordshire, say that they were known as “Guisers” in the north of the county.

    Another article from June of 1923 say the Mummers were known as “the waits.”

  2. David Oakley says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks to John and Paul Anslow for the memories of the Walsall Wood guisers. I remember them from the late 1930’s, we were young carol singers and were a little bit timid of the guisers, seeing them in the darkness in their unique style of clothing . rehearsing the ancient lines as they walked along. “Guisers”, we would whisper, and would move across the road. The opening lines stay with me, “I open this door and I enter in”. Heard many times as a pub door opened. As was the finale, “The cock sat up in the yew tree”…. This got so popular at one time that it often ended up as the final verse of a carol as a Christmas greeting.
    Other Christmas memories from the 1930’s, unemployed ‘santa claus’s ‘ roaming the streets, in full dress a few weeks prior to Christmas, selling ‘twopenny dips’ – a Christmas cracker toy wrapped in a bit of coloured tissue. Not too many Christmas trees, then. A cheaper alternative was known as ‘Christmas Bowls’, two circular wooden discs, scrounged from a keg of loose butter from the grocer, set at right-angles, one within the other , covered in bright crepe paper and tinsel and decked out with tree ornaments, including sugar pigs.etc. then hung up in the front window. Not many turkeys, either. An elderly hen, whose egg-laying days were over, often provided the Christmas dinner, while a 1/11d rabbit would supplement the Christmas menu for many folk in those difficult times. Christmas presents – we would all hang our stockings up and receive an apple, orange , shiny penny, few nuts and sweets. On the window-ledge or at some convenient spot I would awake to find a new pair of ‘Little Terror’ boots, (never low shoes which I always longed for), and a jersey, made from shoddy coloured re-cycled wool. There would also be a modest small present, if you had lobbied your parents successfully for the last month or so. My favourite was when I was eight, I received a ‘John Bull Printing Outfit, costing sevenpence ha’penny from Booth’s on the High Street. I have received many presents since, but seeing the outline of that particular gift in the darkness of a Christmas morning all those years ago, will be forever with me.
    Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

    • John Anslow says:

      A school friend of mine from Watling Street used to put up the Christmas decorations for his grandparents in the early 1960s. A couple of hoops were brought out of the shed every year and covered with holly that my pal cut from the hedge. A few baubles and a couple of strands of tinsel completed the decoration, which was then hung from a hook in the ceiling of the living room.

      I recall thinking at the time that this was a very effective and economical alternative to a Christmas tree; it always brought to mind of the carol “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”.

      It is most interesting to read that this wasn’t just an eccentricity on the part of my friend’s grandparents but that, at one time, similar decorations were used throughout the area.

      • Diane Codrington says:

        I can remember my Mom Margaret Birch from Beech tree rd telling me their decorations were hoops of greenery hung from the ceiling.

  3. Pingback: Geared up for Christmas | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

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