Cold and darkness have descended, my friends. As we edge toward the winter solstice, let’s consider what brings us joyful light, what forms of pleasure and play people have historically used to brighten this dark season.
A few weeks ago, my family and I tried out a winter pageant tradition that was new to me: a Mummers’ play. The origin of these crazy costumed pantomimes is murky, but they involve a small cast of wandering players acting allegorical stories of death and resurrection – stories that emerged from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, honoring the death of the old year and birth of the new. Later, this was mapped onto Christian resurrection narratives, stories of St. George the dragon slayer, Crusades tales, and proto-urban myths about miraculous quack doctoring. Mummers plays are more Monty Python than passion play, more giddy than godly. (You can call some up on YouTube with no trouble, including our recent South Bend mumming.)
As with most popular culture, the logic of a Mummers’ play, if you test it at all, is as flimsy as a tissue crown from a Christmas cracker. Even the name, “mummer,” might come from the German word for mask, or the Middle English word for silent miming. The over-the-top costuming and acting may, or may not, be affiliated with traditions of carnival, in which, for a day, at least, any lowly soul might wave a pasteboard sword or dole out sugar pills as a quack doctor who can reanimate the dead. By the middle ages, the proper reward for the actors’ efforts was to fill empty tankards with ale, or wassail, especially if, certainly by the 19th century, some caroling was thrown in for good measure.
I was plenty nervous about bursting into shops in South Bend as an ad-hoc actor, but I drew courage from my brave and bravely costumed daughters, and from my own liberating disguise as a heavily bosomed nag. As someone with an uncertain spiritual orientation, I was surprised to find weird enlightenment, actually, in our broad comedy about life after death – hope after darkness. I thought of how strangely moved I am, still, by the 1960s Peanuts television special, in which Linus, his only prop a security blanket, recites the Nativity story, his child’s voice hesitating over lines he can barely pronounce, but that nevertheless transport him – and us—to another time and place.
This human desire to play – however solemnly or giddily – with the notion that we are other than ourselves, or more than ourselves, seems to ring truer in seasons of privation, when the frosty air holds our voices in vapor, as if expressly for us to ponder meanings. We see this in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and updated in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which, in the dead of winter, we are allowed to test our most self-annihilating fantasies, playing out the tantalizing or terrible “What if?” logic of our lives – past, present, and future.
After our family’s experiment in Mumming, I put our daughters and their friends to work on our first holiday decorating of the season, asking them to paint the phrase “Peace on Earth” on our large front window in as many different languages as they could manage. There was a native speaker of Arabic in the mix, and between him, some middle-school Spanish and French, and a nearby laptop hooked up to Babel Fish, they created a full script of translations to paint in broad brushes with stained-glass colors. What I wanted was something solemn, sacred: a script about peace-making that would seem to hang in the air, transfiguring the landscape every time I looked out or a passerby looked in. The kids, though, had other plans. They stuck with it for a while, but then they got goofy, spoofing their display with silly snowmen and a face with its tongue stuck out. Over the past few weeks, I’ve fought the urge to tidy up the window, to make it fit my vision. But I’m trying to live with the kids’ play. Why not be silly instead of solemn? Joy to the world, right?
Consider your own belief system: Secular, sacred, scientific, philosophical, political, ecological, or a mixture, as heady and complex as hot mulled wine. In this cold and dark time of year, playing with the unfamiliar – whether we translate it as miracle, surprise, fantasy or possibility – may offer the most promise, the most joy, as we venture toward the new.