Sunday, 31 May 2015

Strange tradition of the Christmas Sport

The Christmas Sport – 31 Dec 2015

People unfamiliar with British ways might find some of our activities and customs strange - Morris dancing, the Gorsedd of Bards, a boat race in the capital city between two provincial universities, the Last Night of the Proms, in South Wales old Christmas customs like the Mari Lwyd and Wassailing.  All these contribute to making Britain the fascinating and varied nation that it is - and ensure that we do not take ourselves too seriously!  But surpassing such customs must be the Christmas Sport (no connection with football), which was the usual Gower name for the traditional Mummers’ Play. 

We are used to carol singers going from door to door, and in the years before the First World War there were Wassailers or the Mari Lwyd doing similarly in the evenings.  Even more bizarre there might be a group of young men, wearing white trousers with ribbons in their caps and carrying wooden swords, going about to enact the Christmas Sport, though not in Welsh-speaking parts of Wales.  This may have originated in medieval times, with a background of the Crusades, and in Cornwall a similar custom was called ‘The Christmas Play of St George’.  Thomas Hardy draws on childhood experiences in his 1878 novel ‘The Return of the Native’ to depict a Mummers' Play. 

The group of players would include such integral characters as Father Christmas, St George, the Turkish knight and the Doctor, with perhaps a few minor parts if there were more players.  This Father Christmas was not the corpulent cheerful person dressed in red with a white beard that derives from the early nineteenth century, but an older, leaner individual with a long beard.  The play, if something so unpretentious could be called a play, would take place in the front room of a house, with the players assembling in the kitchen. 

In the 1879 volume of his ‘History of West Gower’, which deals with Llanmadoc and Cheriton of which he was vicar, Rev J.D. Davies gives an example where the players speak in verse.  On being admitted, the first player enters and announces their intention to show some Christmas Sport.  Other characters come in one at a time: Father Christmas hobbles in and expresses the hope that he will not be forgotten; he goes out.  The Turkish knight comes in, and throws out a challenge to fight St George.  St George enters and accepts the challenge - they fight and the Turkish knight falls.  St George enquires if there is a doctor to be found who is able to cure this knight of his deadly wound.  The Doctor – whom Rev. Davies describes as being ‘dressed in some fantastic way’ - enters and claims he has a little bottle which can cure the knight.  When it is applied to the Turkish knight’s nose he revives and goes out.  One of the players goes around with a hat asking for some money, before all retire.  In other versions of the play, extra characters could be Oliver Cromwell, or the Valiant Soldier or Hump-Backed Jack. 

The play was performed in Stouthall in the 1870s, and in Killay until the First World War.  It comes into the ‘Hero-Combat’ category, consisting of a Prologue - whereby the first character introduces himself and calls for room in which to present the play; the Combat - in which the antagonists enter, declare their identities, and fight until one is struck down; the Lament - in which the victor calls for a doctor to revive the fallen man; and the Cure - where the doctor, after a little boasting, administers his remedy. 

Though television provides us with far more sophisticated and professional productions, perhaps we have lost something with the disappearance of these unusual old customs?

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