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Prague 2014

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The Christmas Boys of Winterbourn Down

Where to see us - On Boxing Day, in Winterbourn Down. We start off at Stone Lane, at 10.30, proceed to Winterbourn Down Post Office, for 11.00, then on to Colston Close for 11.45, and finally to the Cross Hands Pub for our 12.15 finale. (Times may vary, if the Turkish Knight's death throes last overlong).

Alternatively, if you can't wait until Christmas - Buy the video - see here for details.

In 1978 the reminiscences of Mrs Edith Penton, born in the village of Winterbourn Down, were recorded by Terry Martin. She recalled her father's memory of a group called the 'Christmas Boys ' who performed a play every Boxing Day, around the houses in the village. Her father learned the words by repetition, and every Christmas he would go through the play with Edith and her brother and sisters as a sort of 'party prece'. She remembered the words of Father Christmas, Little Fellow and the Doctor but only the actions of St George and the Turkish Knight. She was shown scripts from other plays, in order to prompt her memory. She recalled the King of Spain's daughter and the fact that both St George and the Turkish Knight were boastful of their prowess. She then completed the rhymes as she had a talent for poetry (in fact she has published a booklet of her poetry).

The players had blackened faces, with ribbons hanging from their hats to aid the disguise. Even so, she said that she knew the identity of some of the players, but that it was bad luck to divulge their names. They would go into houses unannounced (the doors not being locked in those days), perform their play and receive money, food or drink in return. The play continued until the 1st world war and did not continue after (one member, at least, was killed in action). They used to rehearse in the cellar of the cottage of a person by the name of Tom Biggs.

Other elderly people in surrounding parishes helped to identify plays in Frampton Cotterell (called the King George there), Stoke Gifford (where they played penny whistles as well), and Watleys End (could have been Winterbourn Down Players but it is unlikely as there was great rivalry between the two villages).

A group was re-formed in 1979, receiving help to supervise the choreography. The first revival performance was in front of handful of people and a dog. The dog enjoyed it immensely and some money was collected for the Friends of Frenchay.

The costumes are largely of personal choice, each player adding his personal touches. The original cast (pre 1913) would have been simple countrymen, quarry workers, farm labourers, miners etc with little money. The reasons for performing were probably part tradition, natural continuation or habit / not much else to do (a bit of fun) / a way of obtaining free food, drink or money etc. Blackening faces (coal dust etc) and a hat with ribbons were a cheap and easy method of disguise. It rarely works, however - current Winterbourn Down Christmas Boys have been spotted by people they haven't seen for years, even with a thick layer of black grease paint. It does add to the mystery of the characters, though, especially to young children for whom they can even be a bit frightening. There are several village children who couldn't bear to watch for several years through fear - (or maybe they were just very astute drama critics?)

Generally the play sticks to tradition, in that the script is not acted, and tries to maintain a working class base via local dialect and costume. It seeks to entertain (on the basis that pre 1913 there was surely an entertainment aspect in order to obtain payment), without resorting to it becoming a Pantomime. There is an attempt to maintain a balance of entertainment, enjoyment, colour, drama; keeping audiences' attention and participation, while maintaining a traditionally mystical atmosphere. The characters act from their soul; it is real and it matters. It is part of village life, helps cement the community and provides a link with past and future generations.

Father Christmas He wears largely Christmas colours; red with green. He sports a large white beard, tatter coat and rings the bell to introduce the play and the characters as they come on. The hunting horn is used to alert those in the audience who are not paying attention.

It is a little known fact that Father Christmas is also a dab hand with the bodhrun

St George His helmet is made from a donated World War II village air raid warden's steel helmet. He wears a tatter coat, and carries a wooden sword and a steel shield with red cross. His knitted balaclava is intended to represent chain mail (also the helmet is too big without it). He plays a proud patriot, and encourages the crowd to his cause.

Painstaking research has proved that both St George and Turkish Knight (see next picture) benefitted from the early invention of spectacles. Sadly, the idea was subsequently lost for a few centuries, until it was reinvented by Salvino d'Armato in the 1300s. Our Christmas Boys are faithful to the true tradition.

Turkish Knight He wears a tatter coat of mixed colours, mainly dark green, and a sandy necklace. He wears a cloak which he brandishes and gives to the Little Fellow to hold (this is eventually used as a mat to lay on when he is slain). He wears a Turkish style head dress with large jewels. He carries a wooden sword, a large axe, and a steel shield and plays a menacing, boastful, part. He cheats, by having two weapons, whereas St George has only the one. He has to fight St George.

Turkish Knight...tries to humiliate and intimidate St George and the audience. They don't all seem to be taking him seriously enough.

But, as we said before, for the young children he can even be a bit frightening.

Green Man, seen here trying to pretend he is a macracarpa hedge, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. Its hard to work out what he is thinking, and his spectacle wearing status is a mystery.

The Doctor He wears a top hat and frock coat with black ribbons over his face. The hat and coat were from the wedding suit of Mrs Penton's husband, and therefore have a lineage with the past. In contrast to the borrowed top half, the trousers and boots are of poor working class effect. The main role of the doctor in the play is to signify the re-birth of the new year by the rejuvenation of St George. He also benefits from the invention of spectacles.

The doctor takes his social responsibilities seriously. Here, he is probably holding forth on the under funding of the NHS,

while here he is trying to persuade a lady in the audience that his bottle of "turpentine" can repair the seven essential signs of ageing..

Little Fellow He wears a tatter coat with comic headgear. The part is played by either a physically little or large fellow, to add to the effect. This character has, over the years, become a supporter of the Turkish Knight and encourages him whilst trying to belittle St George. There is also a fool/jester aspect to this character. Here he is, telling everyone all about it. Note that he is also being much BIGGER than anyone else in the photo.

And here he is again encountering Norbert, the dragon. Norbert doesn't actually have a part in the mummers play, despite the presence of St George, the legends about George and the dragon, and all that jazz.

 Click here for Boxing Day Clip.      or here for Hambrook House Clip

In 2005 we collected £610, and donated it to a local charity, Paul's Place. Here are some of the mummers presenting the cheque to Annie Powell- thankfully the mummers have scrubbed up a bit since last seen!

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