The midwinter mummers

I set off for Yagleah early this morning, accompanied by Brother Walter the hob. He was in fine spirits and entertained me royally by singing most of the way. The hob has spent many a midwinter and Christmas in the shadows beyond the fire in village huts and warriors' halls, listening to stories and songs. Over the years of his very long life he has learned many of them by heart and he now takes delight in sharing them with me. Some were in a language I did not recognise, but Brother Walter carefully explained the meaning behind each one to me. He is as learned as he is wise, and the best of companions.

To Brother Walter's delight, we came upon a group of mummers in Yagleah. They wore masks to disguise themselves, shaped like animal heads. There was a hare and a cockerel, a bull and a hawk. Their leader wore a fine set of antlers and led the singing in a deep voice that boomed across the snowy green. They danced and played the pipes and lute, and the villagers gathered to watch them and join in the merriment. The hob clapped and stamped his feet and capered in time to the tunes. He stayed safely out of sight behind a cart near the blacksmith's shed and I stood beneath an oak tree nearby to listen and nod along to the old familiar tunes. For a while, the biting cold and harshness of winter were forgotten and we shared a gladness of spitit that warmed us as surely as the brightest of fires.

The mummers' songs reminded me of Christmases past, when I was a boy growing up in my father's house on the High Street in Leicester. I remember standing in the churchyard of St Martin's, watching the miracle plays being performed on the back of wagons and carts. Ancient mysteries unfolded before my eyes, amongst the brightly coloured costumes and richly painted back cloths of distant lands. I saw dragons and angels, saints and kings and even God himself - though I knew him to be just an actor in robes of gold and a mask fashioned to look like the radiant sun. I can still recall the bitter chill of those far-off frosty days, and warming my hands at a brazier in a corner of the churchyard before we set off for home. I can still taste the honey-dipped apples bought from  sweetmeat sellers in the street and hear my father laugh as we watched an old man with two dancing dogs. They hopped and turned on their hind legs as the old man played a bone whistle. My father threw him a coin and I gave him my barely touched apple. He nodded and winked and shared it with his dogs.  

One year, a group of travelling mummers came to the town. The sang and played by the High Cross during the Wednesday market before Christmas. I listened then as I listened this morning, thrilled by a sense of wonder as I caught a glimpse of something ancient and profound beneath the words and music.

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