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Peter Millington

An Unexpected Twist to a 19th-century Mummers' Illustration

The following illustration showing a group of juvenile folk play actors comes from William Sandys' book Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (Sandys, 1852, p.152).

Illustration of Mummers from W.Sandys (1852)

The picture shows five boys, performing outdoors and being watched by a woman from behind the bottom half of a stable door. The three boys in the middle are dressed alike in military-style uniforms, with drawn swords in their hands. These clearly represent the protagonists in a Hero-Combat play. On the right is a character dressed in old-fashioned black clothes - evidently the Doctor. But who is the character on the left? His clothing seems similar to the three military characters, without the tall hat, but he is obviously wearing a mask and leaning on a large club.

Ask anyone who is familiar with British and Irish folk plays who this character is - which I have done during lectures - and the universal reply is Beelzebub. This is because the appearance of this devilish individual tallies with Beelzebub's lines, of which the following are typical:

Here comes I Beelzebub
And over my shoulder I carry my club
And in my hand a dripping pan
I think myself a jolly old man

Notwithstanding that the club is not being held over the shoulder and that there is no sign of a dripping pan, the appearance of this character does seem to match Beelzebub's lines. It therefore comes as a surprise to learn from Sandys' accompanying description that this figure is in fact meant to be Father Christmas. I have highlighted the relevant passage in bold letters below:

"The performers, who are usually young persons in humble life, are attired, including St. George and the Dragon, much in the same manner, having white trousers and waistcoats, showing their shirtsleeves, and decorated with ribbons and handkerchiefs; each carrying a drawn sword or cudgel in his hand : as one of the Somersetshire mummers says, 'Here comes I liddle man Jan wi' my sword in my han!' They wear high caps of pasteboard, covered with fancy paper, and ornamented with beads, small pieces of looking-glass, bugles, &c., and generally have long strips of pith hanging down from the top, with shreds of different coloured cloth strung on them, the whole having a fanciful and smart effect. The Turk sometimes has a turban; Father Christmas is represented as a grotesque old man, with a large mask and comic wig, and a huge club in his hand; the Doctor has a three-cornered hat, and painted face, with some ludicrous dress, being the comic character of the piece; the lady is generally in the dress of the last century, when it can be got up; and the hobby-horse, when introduced, which is rarely, has a representation of a horse's hide. Wellington and Wolfe, when they appear, are dressed in any sort of uniform that can be procured for the nonce, and no doubt will now be found as militia men of the county where the play is represented."

(W.Sandys, 1852, pp.154-155)

The picture is clearly based on the description. Sandys used essentially the same description in his earlier accounts of Cornish plays (in Hone, 1827, Sandys, 1830 & 1833, and "Uncle Jan Treenoodle", 1846). Presumably he was happy with the accuracy of the depiction.

While it is unsurprising that this portrayal of Father Christmas does not match his present-day commercialised appearance, it does not seem to match any earlier representations either. It is even more curious that a wholesome character such as Father Christmas should somehow have become mixed up with Beelzebub, the Devil incarnate. So what is the relationship between Father Christmas and Beelzebub in English folk plays generally? Upon investigation, the significant answer to that question is that there is not one.

Using the historical collection of scripts on the Traditional Drama Research Group website (, I have plotted the geographical distribution of both characters on the following map,

Thumbnail distribution map of Beelzebub v Father Christmas   Distribution map of Beelzebub versus Father Christmas
  [Click on the thumbnail map to
view the full-sized version.

It can be seen that the two characters normally occupy different regions of the map with very little overlap. Father Christmas occurs in southern England, roughly south of a line stretching between the Thames and Severn estuaries. Beelzebub occurs north of that line and in Ireland. Furthermore, a closer examination of the scripts reveals distinct differences between the plays in which these two characters appear. In my PhD thesis, I have described these differences in detail in terms of their dialogue lines (Millington, 2002). However, they can be summarised more simply in terms of cast lists, as follows:

  • [An unnamed introducer], King George, Slasher, Doctor and Beelzebub.
       Extra characters commonly include Little Devil Doubt.
  • Father Christmas, King George, Turkish Knight and Doctor.
       Extra characters commonly include Little Johnny Jack

If plays with Beelzebub and Father Christmas are so distinct, why do we seem to have a hybrid in the picture. My suggestion is that the reason for the confusion is that one version of the play was transformed into a new version, with Father Christmas effectively replacing Beelzebub but retaining features of Beelzebub's original costume. The possible confusion that this could cause can be seen at three locations where Beelzebub is referred to as "Old Father Beelzebub" - Upper and Lower Howsell, Worcestershire, Ovingdean, Sussex, and Mid-Berkshire (Lowsley, 1888 - Lowley's text was also reported at Glympton, Oxfordshire by E.Harpwood, 1961). Lowsley gives the following reassuring description for his costume - "Old Beelzebub: As Father Christmas".

Given that Father Christmas and the Turkish Knight are closely tied together in southern England, and that this group also has King George "the man of courage bold", with his dragon legend speech, a rational explanation for the creation of the new script is that the play was rewritten to increase its Christian content, probably by someone of religious sensibilities. Three changes support this view.

  • Firstly, all blasphemous or risqué material was removed - e.g.:


    • Beelzebub was replaced by Father Christmas.
    • "The Devil" was replaced by "the cook shop" in the line "and send him to the cook shop to make mince pies".
    • The word "pox" was replaced by "pitch" or "stitch" in the line "I can cure the hitch the stitch the palsy and the gout".
    • It is also possible that the supernumerary Devil Doubt was removed, and perhaps replaced by Johnny Jack, although there are insufficient examples in the database to verify this.


  • Secondly, the introduction of the Turkish Knight turned the plot into a play about the Crusades. Similarly, the inclusion of lines regarding the Saint George legend also reinforced the Crusading motif. It is odd however that King George was not promoted to Saint. Perhaps that would have been taboo to a strictly religious author.

  • Lastly, the choice of Father Christmas emphasises the Christmas and hence the Christian theme.

From the distribution, there can be no doubt that the new version was created in southern England. Although it is not possible to say precisely where, somewhere in the southern Cotswolds seems most likely since it has been demonstrated that the Irish plays derived from here, and the Irish Turkish Champion is clearly equivalent the Turkish Knight in southern England.

At some point the old and new texts would have come into contact with each other, and this probably explains the plays in Hampshire and neighbouring counties that have a mix of features - notably both the Turkish Knight and Slasher.



E.Harpwood (1961) The Glympton (Oxfordshire) Mummers' Play
   Folklore, Mar.1961, Vol.72, pp.338-342

W.Hone (1827) The Every-Day Book and Table Book : Vol.II
   London, Thomas Tegg & Son, 1827, cols.122-128
   [For the script of this play see]

B.Lowsley (1888) A Glossary of Berkshire Words and Phrases
   London, Trubner, 1888, pp.17-22

P.T.Millington (2002) The Origins and Development of English Folk Plays
   PhD Thesis, University of Sheffield, May 2002, pp.231-281
   [Abstract at:]

W.S. [W.Sandys] (1830) Christmas Drama of St George
   Gentlemen's Magazine & Historical Review, Jun.1830, pp.505-506

W.Sandys (1833) Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, Including the most popular in the west of England and the airs to which they are sung. Also specimens of French provincial carols. With an introduction and notes.
   London, Richard Beckley, 1833, cxliv + 188pp. 12 scores.
   [For the script of this play see]

W.Sandys (1852) Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols
   London, John Russell Smith, [1852], pp.145, 153-157, 298-301

"Uncle Jan Treenoodle" [W.Sandys] (1846) Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect
   London, John Russell Smith, 1846, pp.53-57