In December 2010, my local community centre in South Gloucestershire revived Mumping Night, a procession and entertainment under the notional supervision of a Lord of Misrule. Mumping is an uncommon word for this seasonal activity, mostly known in the West Country. More commonly it’s mumming, for a performance that was originally in mime or in which participants were in disguise. The name for my local performance seems to be from a confusion between mumming and another old custom of the pre-Christmas period, also called mumping.
Mumping is attached to the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle on 21 December. This used to be known in some parts of England as Mumping Day, when poor people went around their parish begging for alms. It’s from the seventeenth-century Dutch verb mompen, to cheat or deceive, but it became an English dialect word meaning to scrounge or beg.
Mumping is also British police jargon for accepting small favours such as free meals from friendly tradespeople:
Mumping free beer and a doughnut, well, that’s part of being a copper. And who knows, there might even be a few greasy spoons in this town so happy to see a copper that they will spontaneously offer him a free nosh. Stranger things have happened.
Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, 2002.
This mumping, by the way, is not the same as the one, now mainly Scottish, meaning grimacing or grumbling, mumbling or muttering, or moving the jaws as if munching food. That’s linked to another old Dutch verb, also spelled mompen, to mumble, and with the rare German verb mumpfen, to chew with a full mouth. From it we get the name of that nasty viral disease mumps, because of the look of a sufferer’s face when it’s swollen.
Mumping Day was also sometimes called Begging Day. In Kent it was Doleing Day, because gifts or doles — such as draughts of beer or loaves of bread — were given by prosperous people to needy locals. In various counties it has been referred to as going a-gooding, to ask for “good things” for Christmas, which usually meant food or small sums of money, and also going a-corning, to ask farmers for gifts of wheat (English corn) to make bread.