J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Anticks in Post-War Boston

Here's a seasonal memory from Samuel Breck, born in Boston to a well-to-do merchant during the Revolutionary War; Recollections of Samuel Breck was published posthumously in Philadelphia in 1877.

I forget on what holiday it was that the Anticks, another exploded remnant of colonial manners, used to perambulate the town. They have ceased to do it now, but I remember them as late as 1782.

They were a set of the lowest blackguards, who, disguised in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies, and, bon gré, mal gré, obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen, would demand themselves with great insolence. I have seen them at my father’s, when his assembled friends were at cards, take possession of a table, seat themselves on rich furniture and proceed to handle the cards, to the great annoyance of the company.

The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them. One of them would cry out, "Ladies and gentlemen sitting by the fire, put your hands in your pockets and give us our desire." When this was done and they had received some money, a kind of acting took place. One fellow was knocked down, and lay sprawling on the carpet, while another bellowed out,
"See, there he lies, But ere he dies
A doctor must be had."
He calls for a doctor, who soon appears, and enacts the part so well that the wounded man revives.

In this way they continue for half an hour; and it happened not unfrequently that the house would be filled by another gang when these had departed. There was no refusing admittance. Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose.
Folks who know about English folklore have no doubt recognized these "Anticks" as traditional Christmas mummers.

Such misrule was one of the reasons the Puritan founders of Massachusetts were so down on Christmas (along with the little matter of the date not being mentioned in the Bible). By the time of Breck's childhood, however, such disapproval no longer prevented young men from enjoying this form of begging and theater.

I haven't found any mentions of Anticks in Boston before the Revolutionary War, so I suspect the tradition took hold in those years, that it wasn't a relic of colonial times but actually a new import from Britain. That was probably partly due to the shake-up of society that the war brought about, and partly to the end of Pope Night as a holiday when young Bostonians could dress up, cavort, and demand coins from the upper class.

1 comment:

Conrad Bladey (Peasant) said...

The mumming reference is an important one. It illustrates well the stratification of celebration which took place.

-Official cannon salutes, toasts by government officials and military (see the shooting of the serpent gun whilst Washington was on a trip to Barbados....and other references.)

-Attendance of Plays some specific to the day as well as parlor celebrations as that disrupted by the mumming by the upper and maagerial classes.

-street performances involving apprentaces with masters in leading roles

-participants...negros slaves youths etc....

each layer interacted and sanctioned the others in co-dependance
Conrad Bladey
Center for Fawkesian Pursuits
Baltmore Md.
cbladey@verizon.net