“Mummers Tale” Puts Pagan Twist on “A Christmas Carol”

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CHICAGO, Ill. –Theatergoers who live close to the Windy City will have a special treat this year from the troupe Terra Mysterium in the form of “A Midwinter Mummers Tale.”  The play is being described as “an original folk adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic A Christmas Carol.” Those who are familiar with the classic story of redemption for Ebenezer Scrooge will no doubt find the theme familiar, but this is really an entirely new play. It draws upon spirits and gods in a way that might be more familiar to the modern Pagan than the average consumer of winter holiday entertainment.


Matthew Ellenwood, artistic director for the performance troupe, explained that seeing this production in person is the only way right now. “We use projections for the our backdrops, which makes filming the production (at a level of quality we’d be proud of) very challenging,” Ellenwood said. As this is the first-ever performance, there aren’t even many photographs to give a hint as to what will transpire, although he promised a number of high-quality images will be available after the performance.

The few details that Ellenwood could provide give a sense of the original tale. It is set in a “parallel history that never was,” different enough to allow for a few tweaks here and there. “Because this is a parallel history . . . we are welcome to populate it as we see fit,” he explained. “It is our choice to see a world where mixed and same sex marriages are not uncommon, where women are equal to men in every regard, and where indigenous traditions as frequent as any Christian denomination. This is a world where real magick is matter of fact, and the spirits walk amongst us. It is a place where joy emerges from pain, and transformation is accepted freely.”

The main character, Esmerelda Pennywise, is a powerful and independent Regency-era businesswoman. Ellenwood explained a bit more about her:

I feel it is compelling to consider how powerfully strong Mrs. Pennywise would have to have been to be able to thrive, without a male partner, in a cutthroat businessman’s world. Her ‘coldness’ would seem to be a trait acquired out of need, and due to circumstance. However, her choice to transform into a woman of integrity and compassion speaks volumes about her soul’s fortitude.

Mummers performing in England [source: Wikipedia]

Mummers performing in England [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

As the title suggests, the play draws upon the tradition of mumming, which Ellenwood describes as “seasonal plays, often performed in disguises and masks with performers (known as guisers) playing archetypal characters (such as Punch and Judy). These simple and humble stories contain universal and profound themes of light and dark, death and resurrection, and the magical power of good over evil, truth over falsehood. They are still performed from door to door in many parts of the British isles.” Yuletide mumming traditions such as wassailing and the horse-rite will be part of the fun.

Founded in 2008, Terra Mysterium “is a Chicago-based collective of performers who create, produce, and perform experiential works of theatre that are rooted in the Earth Mysteries” according to the group’s Facebook page. From the description provided, “A Midwinter Mummers Tale” is true to form as they “seek to bring our audience into the unique, warm embrace of these midwinter folkways and rekindle an interest in honoring (or even creating our own) traditions for the current time as we descend into the dark half of the year.”

Throughout the tale, Pennywise encounters a cunning man, the Trickster, the Holly King, and the Dark Goddess as she is given the opportunity to reflect upon her life and to consider choosing a different path for the future. Tricksters are part of many world traditions, and the one chosen for this production is not malicious as some versions are, “but he does know the answer to every question he asks,” said Ellenwood. “He plays dumb and the clown to see how evil Esme has become.  When he senses that she has the power to change, he uses all manner of tactics — sympathy, joy, sadness, and anger — to push her closer to transformation.”

As for the Holly King, that character is described thus in the dramaturgy guide Ellenwood provided:

Santa and goat

[Source: Wikimedia Commons]

In a literal sense, [he] is one half of the vegetation or Green God. As such, he is a force of nature, and in a cyclical battle with the Lord of Summer, the Oak King. Their story is ancient, but is centrally presented in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” He is the Lord of Winter, the bringer of joy in the dark, the protector of life in the bleak winter. He is also an amalgamation of all the proto-Santas in existence. His magical tool is the cornucopia, a magical horn that contains everything one could wish for.  It also links him to the horned beasts, like the goat for the Lord of Misrule.

Finally, there is the Dark Goddess, who is described as the “lady of fate, time, death, and the afterlife. She is the catalyst for karma, and the potential for regeneration.” The version used is inspired by the Norse goddess Hel, or Hela.

Already sold-out, the play’s the limited three-day performance is scheduled for this weekend at the Lincoln Loft. For those who don’t have tickets, the troupe does expect “A Midwinter’s Mummers Tale” to become an annual tradition. Those Pagans who will be attending are encouraged to write a review to share the magic as best they can.