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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Friday, November 10, 2006

How Pope Night Died and Was Reborn

Pope Night was a—perhaps the—major holiday in colonial Boston, especially for working-class teenaged boys. After 1765 it became an occasion to protest Crown officials, thus squarely within the Revolutionary movement. But by the end of the 1770s it was gone. What happened to this elaborate celebration?

After all, New England anti-Catholicism deeply entrenched, especially after decades of fighting the French. Paranoid Whigs suggested that the French king was behind the whole political conflict (as did paranoid Loyalists). Colonial governments used the threat of a French attack to justify building up their militias. Whigs shared rumors that London was recruiting francophone soldiers in Canada to sweep down on New England. In the Suffolk County Resolves of September 1774, one grievance was how the Quebec Act guaranteed French Catholics the freedom of worship.

But that same year, with Boston's port shut and folks expecting war between the troops and the populace, town fathers leaned on the young men to forgo Pope Night. The times were too serious for such revelry. And then public attitudes and values started to change.

In November 1775, a New England army was preparing to invade Canada, expecting the francophone population would help them drive out the British authorities. Gen. George Washington issued these general orders:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.
The holiday enjoyed a last gasp in 1776 and 1777, after the British military had sailed away. It might have been politically awkward to commemorate a British king's deliverance at the same time the town was reviling a British king and celebrating a republic. But in Boston the ideological fuel for Pope Night was anti-Catholicism anyway, and locals could still get into that.

Until the French fleet arrived. In 1778 Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane negotiated an alliance in Paris. Eventually the French king's money, weapons, fleet, and soldiers decided the war. (There were more French soldiers at Yorktown than American.) The ports of Portsmouth, Boston, and Newport were the main conduits for that aid.

With a little trepidation at first, New Englanders welcomed the same Frenchmen they had feared a few years earlier. Rich householders in Boston and Cambridge fêted French officers. In 1783, a priest established Boston's first Catholic parish in what had been the Huguenots' church at the corner of School Street and Cornhill (now Washington Street, where the godawful Irish Famine Memorial now stands). In that atmosphere, it became politically incorrect to revile the Catholic Church—at least as publicly and crudely as the Pope Night gangs had done.

But Pope Night wasn't entirely dead. One element of the celebration survived, and continues in altered form today. That element appears in many reminiscences of the holiday, but overshadowed by the giant effigies and rolling wagons and (in Boston) brawling gangs. A writer in the 9 Nov 1821 Boston Daily Advertiser recalled:
boys in petticoats...swarmed in the streets and ran from house to house with little Popes in their hands, on pieces of board and shingle, the heads of which were carved out of small potatoes.
Harrison Gray Otis told his granddaughter that "A few days before the anniversary [of 5 November], boys ran around to every front door in town ringing handbells and singing:
‘Don’t you hear my little bell
Go chink, chink, chink?
Please to give me a little money
To buy my Pope some drink.’”
This was the local equivalent of English children's "Penny for the guy?"

That part of Pope Night kept going: young boys dressing up and going door to door, asking for coins. So did bonfires; teens didn't need a papal effigy to have fun burning things. In the late 1800s, folklorists spotted children in old New Hampshire towns following these rituals on what they called "Pork Night," with no knowledge of the holiday's older name and roots. These traditions also shifted a few days on the American calendar—from the fifth of November to the last of October.


Jude said...

Why do you think the Irish Famine monument is godawful?

J. L. Bell said...


By contrast, the one in New York is lovely and innovative.