New Forest: Christmas customs and traditions

Mummers plays were traditional folk dramas performed at Christmas.

Mummers plays were traditional folk dramas performed at Christmas.

Christmas is a time for celebration, merry social gatherings and observing Yuletide customs. In the New Forest during times past traditional mummers plays were performed at Christmas. The plays were usually folk dramas, often featuring Father Chrismas, the heroic figure of St George and the Seven Champions of Christendom, which were performed in masks or disguises. Rather than performing in the streets the mummers would go door to door or perform to customers in the public houses. On St Thomas’ Day (21st December, the longest night of the year) the poor women of the community would ‘go gooding’, and sing carols to raise money to supplement their incomes. Whereas groups of boys would go ‘tipeering’ and visit the homes of the gentry, tradespeople and middle classes to sing for tips or they would perform outside the ‘publics’, which included inns and hotels. Often they were given beer and spirits rather than money and would get quite drunk. One overseas commentator in December 1896 remarked; ‘This sounds rather shocking, especially as the boys were hardly more than eight or ten years old; but the drinking habit is so common in England that such an occurrence excites comparatively little comment.’

Boxing Day pursuits
By far the most unusual and most riotous custom observed during the festive season on the New Forest was the traditional squirrel hunt, which was held on Boxing Day. Large groups of men and boys, armed with leaded sticks called ‘scales’, ‘squolyles’ or ‘snogs’, went out on the Forest to hunt for red squirrels which, in the 1800’s, were still in abundance. Observers felt that these excursions were an excuse to flout the absence of the game laws on Christmas/Boxing Day. The frustrations of the hunters, if they were unable to find their prey, were often taken out on each other and many forays ended in brawls. Nevertheless at the end of the day the hunters always finished up in an alehouse where they enjoyed great suppers of ‘squirrel pie’.

Today the traditional Boxing Day activity on the New Forest is the annual Point-to-Point, which is still run under the original rules. Riders are allowed to choose their own course, across the Open Forest, between the start and finish point. The location of the finishing point is made public a week before the race, but the starting point is kept a secret until the day before – yes, on Christmas Day! The race is the perfect event for demonstrating the all-round capabilities of the purebred or part-bred New Forest pony and a good opportunity for catching up with friends. See you there.



New Forest Mummers perform in Lyndhurst:

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