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The Winster Guisers

Peak District Customs - The Winster Guisers

Oh - What A Pantomime!

The one thing all Peak District customs have in common is the fact that they are seasonal, with some dating back many centuries to a time when agriculture was far more important than football!

All the seasons are celebrated in the Peak, with such local customs as Garland Day and maypole dancing in the spring, well dressing in the summer, church clypping in the autumn, and the ghost of Christmas Past is kept alive and well by certain local folk `masquerading in the guise of mummers'. For that is exactly what the Winster Guisers do, and oh - what a pantomime!

Performing at various venues around Derbyshire's White Peak villages during the festive season, the Winster Guisers are a troupe of local strolling players who every Christmas bring a traditional mix of colourful drama, festive cheer, and sometimes hysterical hilarity to the unsuspecting public in a number of Peak District pubs. For the uninitiated, mumming and guising are one and the same and take many different forms, depending on location and tradition.

According to the dictionary a `mummer' is `one who masquerades in a folk play, usually at Christmas' - and `mumming' is `a show without reality; a foolish ceremonial', whilst a `guiser' is `a person in disguise, dressed up in costume; a Christmas mummer; one who goes guising'.

Well, in Winster and surrounding villages each Christmas, eleven go guising - and the same troupe have done so now since Allan Stone and his ten merry men - or rather eight merry men, an old woman and a dead horse - breathed new life into an ancient and half-forgotten tradition in Winster twenty five years ago.

Once widespread, the old custom of guising was well established in numerous peakland villages until the First World War.
At his Winster home Allan said:
"The seasonal round of English life was once marked by ceremonials and rituals performed exclusively by men wearing disguise, and though the origins of mumming and guising are uncertain and differ from place to place, they may be connected with pre-Christian, possibly Celtic fertility rituals - though this is clearly not what gives guising its undeniable vitality today!"? he adds wryly.
"Performances are usually over the Christmas and New Year period, though they can, and do, range from Halloween to Easter, and may be given in the streets, public houses, village halls, large private houses and even outlying farms"?.

Performance is based on the Winster traditional, the characters and costumes of which are taken from an old photograph of Winster guisers standing outside Winster Hall around 1868/70. The custom was lost to Winster until, armed with the Winster Hall photograph, Allan Stone and his intrepid troupe manufactured exact replicas of the Victorian `guising' costumes, and together with character's names and dialogue gleaned from the distant recollections of the fading memories of elderly residents - and the black-painted skull of a dead horse - decided to re-launch an almost forgotten tradition - and Winster Guisers were re-born!

The characters are The Enterer In; St.George; Black Prince; King of Egypt; Old Woman; Doctor; Beelzebub; Little Johnny Jack; Devilly Doubt; Groom, and Dead Horse.
Amazingly, by tradition the horse is actually made from the black painted skull of a dead horse, varnished and with painted eyes and ears added, and a broomstick with a blanket or coat thrown over it. The flexible jawbone is worked by elastic from beneath the blanket!

At the end of each performance a collection is taken and the proceeds donated to charity, with both Mencap and Age Concern benefitting in recent years.

For those who have never witnessed the Winster Guisers in action, I can promise you that it is a traditional Peak District festive experience that you will never forget!