December 23, 2012

The Christmas Anticks: St. George and the Mummers Visit Boston

Up until the mid-1800s Christmas was a hotly debated holiday in New England. The middle and upper classes, along with the government and church authorities, were virulently anti-Christmas; the lower classes, fishermen, and sailors tended to be pro-Christmas. Even though Christmas was not an official holiday and the government discouraged it, these folks still found ways to celebrate it.

For example, during the 1700s groups of laborers and lower class men would don disguises and travel door-to-door in Boston at Christmas time performing skits and asking for money. Bostonians called these performers the Anticks. Of course, the wealthy people whose houses they visited didn't want to see the skits or give out any holiday cheer, but they felt powerless to do anything for fear of reprisal. Better to hand out some beer and coins than to find all your windows broken in the morning!

Samuel Breck, a wealthy Bostonian who lived in a large house on the corner of Winter and Tremont streets, recalled visits from the Anticks when he was a child.

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 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.

Although Breck doesn't mention this, the Boston Anticks were actually performing a mummer's play, a centuries old form of British seasonal folk-theater. They were most likely performing of the many skits about St. George where he is slain and then resurrected magically.

British mummers, from this site.

Samuel Breck had a very "Bah! Humbug!" attitude towards the Anticks, and many other upright citizens felt the same way. But although they ostensibly shared Breck's opinion, the police claimed it was hard to arrest the Anticks because they wore disguises, and police officials suggested private citizens arrest any Anticks who harassed them. It sounds to me like the police really had little interest in shutting the Anticks down and were just passing the buck. Who knows? Maybe they had friends or family members who were part of the Anticks, or just enjoyed seeing the wealthy people squirm.

This information comes from Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas. If you are interested in the history of Christmas in America this book is it!

Have a great Christmas, and if any Anticks come to your house make sure to give them a little cash.


coyotebanjo said...

Nice post--glad to have this information. As an FYI: Henry Glassie's "All Silver and No Brass" is a wonderful, deep, very readable survey of the mummer's play from Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. At least part of the reason Boston's Anglicans and Congregationalists would have disapproved of mumming is because it was, in that city, a strongly Catholic-identified tradition.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment Christopher, and thanks for the book recommendation!

Wade Tarzia said...

Mumming was done in some parts of Ireland up until recently (and may still be going on for all I know). See Henry Glassie's book, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, and Ray Cashman's more recent book, Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border.