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The Winster Guisers - Oh what a Pantomime!

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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The Winster Guisers - Oh – What A Pantomime!

Christmas is coming; the times they are a-changing and the geese are getting fat – please put a fiver in the old man’s hat!

Yes it’s pantomime season again, and if you’ve left it too late to get tickets don’t worry – Cinderella shall go to the ball – and for the price of a pint!

the ghost of Christmas Past is alive & well, and full of spirit - and probably a drop or two of good Derbyshire ale!'

The ghost of Christmas Past is alive and well, full of spirit - and probably a drop or two of good Derbyshire ale - and at the risk of being literally correct for a change, dare I say, - `masquerading in the guise of mummers’? For that is exactly what the Winster Guisers do, and oh - what a pantomime!

Performing at various venues around Derbyshire’s White Peak villages during the festive season, the Winster Guisers are a troupe of local strolling players who every Christmas bring a traditional mix of colourful drama, festive cheer, and sometimes hysterical hilarity to the unsuspecting public in a number of Peak District pubs.

For the uninitiated, mumming and guising are one and the same and take many different forms, depending on location and tradition.

According to the dictionary a `mummer’ is `one who masquerades in a folk play, usually at Christmas’ – and `mumming’ is `a show without reality; a foolish ceremonial’, whilst a `guiser’ is `a person in disguise, dressed up in costume; a Christmas mummer; one who goes guising’. Well, in Winster and surrounding villages each Christmas, eleven go guising – and the same troupe have done so now since Allan Stone and his ten merry men - or rather eight merry men, an old woman and a dead horse - breathed new life into an ancient and half-forgotten tradition in Winster twenty five years ago.

At his Winster home Allan told me, “The seasonal round of English life was once marked by ceremonials and rituals performed exclusively by men wearing disguise, and though the origins of mumming and guising are uncertain and differ from place to place, they may be connected with pre-Christian, possibly Celtic fertility rituals – though, he added wryly, “this is clearly not what gives guising its undeniable vitality today! Performances are usually over the Christmas and New Year period, though they can, and do, range from Halloween to Easter, he said, “and in Derbyshire may be given in the streets, public houses, village halls, large private houses and even outlying farms”.

I also learned that there are mumming and guising traditions in a variety of forms throughout the world, and that the rather bold intrusion upon privacy employed is part and parcel of all true mumming traditions. In the past the players demanded free ale in pubs and entry into houses, and it was regarded as unlucky to turn them away, although, as Allan admits, “these days the Winster Guisers always check with the landlord or householder first!”.

The house-visit is an integral part of the mumming tradition in places as diverse as Scotland and Newfoundland, and as Allan explained, “Mumming is the common term, but this is also used to describe the black-faced children who sweep the hearths of houses, making a continuous humming sound as they go, in both South-East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire on New Year’s Eve. He went on, “In both Derbyshire and nearby Staffordshire the performers are known as guisers, as were the men and women of Cornwall who changed clothes, blackened their faces, and danced in the streets, so mumming and guising are the same, said Allan, “what differs are the various core traditions. Although widely scattered geographically these survivals of ancient tradition still retain elements common to each other and to versions long since extinct.”

For example, in Shetland, with its mix of Nordic folk-lore and Celtic tradition perhaps the world’s most famous guising ceremony takes place in the capital, Lerwick, every New Year’s Eve.

From each settlement throughout the islands from Christmas Day onwards, groups of guisers travel from house to house performing according to their own local tradition. One week later they all gather at Lerwick on New Year’s Eve for the festival of Up-Helly-A, which culminates with a replica Viking long-boat - symbolising the old year and containing an authentic brushwood funeral pyre - being set ablaze and pushed out to sea by a horde of Shetland guisers wearing horned helmets, strange garb, and weilding axes and spears, whilst others chant traditional rhymes from atop the harbour wall!

However, the Winster Guisers perform a rather less spectacular masquerade than their Shetland counterparts, though equally enthralling and entertaining - and far more hilarious. It is based on the Winster traditional, the characters and costumes of which are taken from an old photograph of Winster guisers standing outside Winster Hall around 1868/70. At that time Winster Hall was owned by writer and antiquarian Llewellyn Jewitt, who in his journal on Boxing Day 1868 wrote, “This evening we had several sets of children `guising,’ i.e. dressed up in all sorts of queer ways, and singing one song or another. The `Hobby Horse came too. Five men, one as a devil, one as a woman, one as an old woman with a besom, one with a hobby horse¼¼.. we had them in the kitchen and gave them money”. Again on December 30th Jewitt writes, “This evening had two parties of guisers in the house. The first -five- were so dull and boring that I packed them off soon. The second set -eleven- with `Snap-Dragon’ and two `Hobby Horses’ were very good, and sang and recited well”.

Writer and local historian Julie Bunting notes, “Once widespread, the old custom of guising was well established in numerous peakland villages until the First World War. Even as late as the 1940’s boys of Biggin near Hartington performed a guising play learnt from older boys as they grew up”. The custom was lost to Winster too until, armed with the Winster Hall photograph, Allan Stone and his intrepid troupe manufactured exact replicas of the Victorian `guising’ costumes, and together with character’s names and dialogue gleaned from the distant recollections of the fading memories of elderly residents – and the black-painted skull of a dead horse - decided to re-launch an almost forgotten tradition – and Winster Guisers were re-born!

The characters are The Enterer In (Brian Skyrme), St.George (Ivan Walters), Black Prince (Leon Stone), King of Egypt (Rob Greatorex), Old Woman (Bill Glossop), Doctor (Allan Stone), Beelzebub (Arthur Elliott), Little Johnny Jack (John Stone), Devilly Doubt (Frank Mason), Groom (Rod Shiers), and Dead Horse (Lee Purslow). Amazingly, by tradition the horse is actually made from the black painted skull of a dead horse, varnished and with painted eyes and ears added, and a broomstick with a blanket or coat thrown over it. The flexible jawbone is worked by elastic from beneath the blanket!

At the end of each performance a collection is taken and the proceeds donated to charity, with both Mencap and Age Concern benefitting in recent years.

For those who have never witnessed the Winster Guisers in action, I can promise you that it is a traditional Derbyshire festive experience that you will never forget.....and of course, I have purposefully refrained from giving away the plot, so that the element of surprise will remain – a surprise!

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