The Mummer tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, although the exact origin cannot be pinpointed. Mummers dressed up in disguises and visited other people either as part of Christmas festivities or in celebration of the New Year. It may have started as part of the Roman festival of Saturnalia or Greek celebrations of Momus.
The tradition was widespread and diverse throughout history. In England and Ireland, it included plays, as Mummers also performed in the royal courts of England. The Mummer’s plays reached their peak between the end of the 19th Century and the first World War in England and Ireland. Similarly, in Germany and Austria in the 16th century, individuals went from house to house in masks during carnival offering a game of dice. In Nordic Regions, various elements of mumming were present in traditions around Christmas and New Years as part of julebukking, Helligtrekongers and Saint Knut’s Day. You will even find a description of mummers practices at Christmas time in Russia in Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace.
The tradition was brought to the United States, where the largest celebration is in Philadelphia. Groups would go from door to door during the time of George Washington, performing in exchange for food. Now, about 15,000 dress up in Philadelphia for The Mummers Parade down Broad Street every January 1st.