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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Monday, December 24, 2007

Royall Tyler Recalls the Christmas Anticks

Last year I posted a recollection and a complaint about Christmas mumming, an old British tradition that surfaced in Boston shortly after the Revolution, once Pope Night was no longer celebrated on the 5th of November. A longtime Boston 1775 reader reminded me of yet another description of mummers, from playwright, novelist, and Vermont judge Royall Tyler, so I saved it for this Christmas Eve.

This passage comes from Tyler’s unfinished novel The Bay-Boy, written in 1824-25 but first published in The Prose of Royall Tyler in 1972. That story is set in and supposedly recalls Boston before the Revolution, so it’s possible that Tyler remembered such mumming from his childhood. Since no one else appears to have done so, however, he probably just moved the picturesque tradition a few years back in time so he could include it in his novel.

On Christmas eve, when a small party of friends were assembled in Dr. G’s parlor, the kitchen door was suddenly thrown open and in rushed a party of lads grotesquely dressed, their faces masked, several of them armed with wooden swords and daggers, who notwithstanding the opposition of the cook maid, immediately began to enact a little farce or comedy. This brought all of the family and visitors into the kitchen and the doctor suffered them to proceed.

I have not a very correct recollection of these antics, as they were called, but I well remember that two of the party soon quarrel’d and engaged in deadly combat but the why and the wherefore would be as difficult to comprehend as it often is in a recounter between real duellists. One of the masked combatants soon fell, and to appearance expired, and suddenly there was as great a demand for a doctor as ever Cooke made for his gelding in the character of the tyrant Richard.

“Five pounds for a doctor,” “Ten pounds for a doctor,” was vociferated on all sides.

Soon the son of Galen appeared: “I am a doctor.”

“You, a doctor? What can you cure?”
“The itch, the stitch, the cholic and gout,
The pains within and pains without;
I can take an old woman of ninety-nine,
Wrap’d up in pitch, tar, and turpentine
And then with what lays on the point of this knife
Quickly I’ll bring the old lady to life;
And for the price of a half pistareen
Can make her dance like a girl of sixteen.”
This wonder-working medicine which seemed to have all the virtues of Dr. Solomon’s Balm of Gilead was soon applied to the deceased, who jumped up and declared himself as sound as a roach and presented his cup for the contribution of the company. The largess was given, the masque retired and we could hear them rush into neighboring mansions.

This is all I can recollect of the performance of the antics. I thought the custom merited a memorandum as evidencing singular anomali in the habits of our ancestors, that bitterly opposed as they were to everything that savored of popery they should have suffered this forlorn fragment of monkish mysteries to pass unnoticed among them.
The picture above, from the B.B.C., shows the doctor, knight, and man of straw from a Northern Ireland mummers’ play in recent years.

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