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, January 06, 2020

Twelfth Night in Occupied Boston

On Friday, 6 Jan 1775, the Boston merchant John Andrews reported:
This morning we had quite a novel sight. The Sailors belonging to the Transports [i.e., the ships that had brought army regiments to Boston] consisting of about 30 or 40 dress’d in white shirts ornamented with various color’d ribbons dispos’d crossways on their bodies with knots and garlands, paraded each side of a long rope dragging a plow, accompanied with one compleatly tar’d and feather’d, representing a he Devil, together with a She Devil, and an attendant, each furnish’d with a bag to collect money, stopping every person of genteel appearance to request a remembrance of Old England, wishing ’em a merry Christmas.

The former look’d as compleatly like the devil as the most fertile invention could form an idea of or picture. The General [Thomas Gage] gave them two half Joes, and it is suppos’d that they collected at least forty guineas. The design of it was to celebrate the twelfth night, or the breaking up of Christmas.
Those sailors were enacting a variation of the folk rituals that rural Britons traditionally performed on “Plough Monday,” the first Monday after Twelfth Night. That day signaled the end of the Christmas season and the return to fieldwork.

There were many ways to observe Plough Monday, but the one closest to this was described in a footnote in the December 1762 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine:
On this day the young men yoke themselves, and draw a plough about with musick, and one or two persons, in antic dresses, like jack-puddings, go from house to house, to gather money to drink. If you refuse them, they plow up your dunghill. We call them here [Derbyshire?] the Plough-Bullocks.
Other sources describe the “color’d ribbons” tied into knots and roses like those the sailors wore. Early nineteenth-century authors identified the male and female figures as the Fool and Bessy.

Most Bostonians didn’t celebrate Christmas, of course, and therefore didn’t recognize Twelfth Night, either. But they should have seen some similarities between this ritual and a holiday they knew well: Pope Night. The procession, the requests for money, the strange costumes, the central tarred figures represented devils, the young man dressed as a female—those were all part of how Boston youth celebrated the Fifth of November.

Pope Night, Plough Monday, and the “Christmas Anticks” that appeared in Boston after the war were all variations on the British mumming tradition. Undoubtedly the sailors off the troop ships knew that Bostonians didn’t welcome Christmas misrule. However, by begging money in “remembrance of Old England” they were making the same sort of patriotic appeal that local youths invoked to justify their rowdiness in November.

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