Toward the end of the 18th century, the Boston Anticks used to burst into mansions at Christmastime and stage silly plays before their affronted hosts.
They wore bizarre costumes and often masks, talked nonsense and demanded money, food or drink. Known as mumming, the custom went back to 17th-century England, spread to the colonies and continues to this day in Newfoundland and Philadelphia.
Today’s wandering Christmas carolers carry on that tradition, too, but in a docile way. The Christmas carol, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, has a chorus of “Oh, bring us a figgy pudding…we won’t go until we get some,” alludes to the mummers’ demands.
The Puritans in early New England managed to stamp out mumming along with Christmas. But in the years before the American Revolution, the wandering Boston Anticks showed the Christmas-hating Puritans that their grip on power was over.
The Boston Anticks
Samuel Breck was born in Boston to a wealthy family in 1771, later moving to Pennsylvania and winning election to the 18th Congress. He had no love for the Anticks.
Breck, in his memoirs, described how the Anticks invaded his boyhood home. He called them, ‘another exploded remnant of colonial manners’ who, ‘used to perambulate the town.’ He remembered 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 [willingly or not], 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 role reversal, in which the riff-raff hold sway over the elite, was the point of the exercise – at least from the Anticks’ point of view.
Breck described a little drama that mirrors the kinds of death-and-rebirth mumming popular in England and Ireland at the time. The mummers’ probably got the idea from St. George and the Dragon, a popular English Christmas play that dates to shortly after the Crusades.
“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,” wrote Breck. “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.”
The Anticks annoyed their hosts with their high-handed commands, but the role reversal for that one day was the point of the exercise.
“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.”
Breck, though, wrote that he couldn’t remember with which holiday the Anticks were associated. And folklorist William Wells Newell said his father didn’t know such a thing as Christmas existed when he was a boy. In the early part of the 19th century, Newell’s father went to Boston Latin School. When the teacher asked on December 25 what day it was, not one boy in the class could answer.
People didn’t remember the Anticks mumming at Christmas because they didn’t celebrate the holiday, wrote Newell. Nevertheless, the 18th-century English custom of mumming during the season, ‘still continued to be more or less observed in New England’ even before the Revolution.
Newell gave as evidence the story a man named John Fulton told him.
“When my mother was a girl (she was born about 1752, and died at the age of 95 years) maskers came to houses and entered with a prologue, each making a speech,” Fulton said.
“The performance included a prologue, combat, cure and questions. I remember the following lines: “Here comes I who never came yet, Great head and little wit, And though my wit it is so ill, Before I go I’ll please you still.”
“Then came questions and evasive answers: “How wide is this river?” “The ducks and the geese they do fly over.” (The mummer who asked played a traveler coming over the river.)
Christmas customs started to return in Boston by the end of the 18th century, and the Anticks became a general nuisance – at least according to Boston’s new police inspector.
Historian J.L. Bell noted In December 1793 that he wrote a letter to the Boston Mercury complaining about them.
“When different clubs of them meet in the street, noise and fighting immediately commences,” wrote the inspector. “Their demands for entrance in houses, are insolent and clamorous; and should the peaceful citizen (not choosing to have the tranquillity of his family interrupted) persevere in refusing them admittance, his windows are broke, or the latches and knockers wrenched from his door as the penalty.”
The inspector concluded, “Or should they gain admittance, the delicate ear is oftentimes offended, children affrighted, or catch the phrases of their senseless ribaldry.”
With thanks to J.L. Bell, Boston 1775, and William D. Crump, The Christmas Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition.
Images: Samuel Breck, By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48361517; English Mumming, illustration by Robert Seymour from The Book of Christmas.
This story was updated in 2020.