Derbyshire villagers keep 19th Century Christmas tradition alive

  • Published
Guisers in Winster from around 1870Image source, Winster Hall
Image caption,
The Winster Guisers's characters and costumes are based around this photograph taken outside Winster Hall around 1870

Performing in masks, careering around pubs and homes with a horse's head and demanding a drink from the hosts. This Christmas tradition, dating back to at least the 19th Century, is still going strong in at least one part of the UK.

A group from a Derbyshire village has been keeping alive the tradition of guising, known as mumming in other places, by dressing up as characters including knights, an old woman and a horse based on a photograph from 1870.

"People say things like, 'Christmas does not start until we see the guisers'," said organiser and Winster Guisers performer Allan Stone.

With no rehearsals ahead of the show, the group of 11 entertain punters at pubs, houses and hotels across the White Peak villages in a number of shows during two weekends over Christmas.

After their 10-minute performance, the group collects money for charity before moving on.

Image source, Allan Stone
Image caption,
The Winster Guisers reformed in 1979 and have been going every year since
Image source, Allan Stone
Image caption,
A battle between characters St George and the Black Prince of Paradise is part of the 10-minute show

Mr Stone, 63, has performed in every single show since the group reformed in 1979. The custom originally died out after the world wars.

He said: "It is the continuation of the tradition, which we think is very important.

"It is always very enjoyable too."

Image source, Allan Stone
Image caption,
The Black Prince is brought back to life by taking beer from the audience, which he downs in one
Image source, Allan Stone
Image caption,
A departure from the narrative happens when devilish Beelzebub enters followed by Little Johnny Jack, with his wife and family on his back, before the climax of the show

Three other members of the group have been involved since 1979 but Mr Stone, who plays the quack doctor, is the only one to have performed in every show.

"Three or four have been involved for 40 years, the majority for 25 years and one for about 10 years," he said.

"It is like when you're in, you're in. It's your role for life."

The story

Image source, Allan Stone
Image caption,
The horse's head has a jaw mechanism so the operator can open the mouth

The "enterer-in" sets the stage for a conflict between St George, who is dressed in red and riding a hobby horse, and the Black Prince of Paradise.

St George is victorious and the King of Egypt berates him for killing his son.

An old woman then calls for a doctor and the quack doctor cures the prince by giving him a pint of beer from an audience member.

The play diverts from this narrative and we meet characters Beelzebub and Little Johnny Jack.

It then ends with a horse, which is a real horse's skull operated by a hidden guiser, careering around the room while a groom tells the animal's life story.

Mr Stone said originally the guisers would dig up a dead horse and use its head in the performance. Now, they use a painted horse's skull, which they have had for years.

Finally, they sing We Wish You a Merry Christmas and demand a drink by singing "we want a jug of ale" as the second line.

Mr Stone said the earliest record they had of guisers in Winster was in the diaries of Llewellyn Jewitt, an antiquarian who lived in Winster Hall for five years from the late 1860s.

He added: "The tradition was people would go around big houses begging a small performance for a drink, food and perhaps some money.

"This was not just confined to Winster. It was a common thing back in that era."

Image source, Allan Stone
Image caption,
A typed extract of the 1867 diary of Llewellyn Jewitt, who lived at Winster Hall

The revival was initiated by a local man called Dave Bathe, who interviewed people old enough to remember the Winster Guisers and looked at written records, which he used to write the script.

After Mr Bathe died in 1993, Mr Stone become the organiser.

"We all feel proud we are keeping this alive," he said.

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