The 5th of November Dies Away—or Does It?

For a few years in the 1790s, Boston’s newspapers contained complaints about “Anticks,” young men who visited houses around Christmas time, performing traditional mummers’ plays and asking for money. A man who grew up in Boston at that time recalled the Anticks this way:

“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, obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen, would demand themselves with great insolence. . . .

“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. . . . 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.”
The mumming tradition, long known in Britain, had not taken root in Puritan New England before. But without “Pope-Night,” Boston’s youths needed a new way to blow off steam and collect some spending money.

In 1841, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, magazine complained that local children continued to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night, and advised parents to send them to bed at sunset on the 5th of November. Late in that century, folklorists reported that Portsmouth children were still observing the holiday, but now they called it “Pork Night” and had no memory of its roots in British politics.

One feature of this New Hampshire celebration, the magazine stated, was “pumpkin lanterns.” And that detail gives us a hint of where some of the customs and feeling of the 5th of November survive today.

Quotation source: Samuel Breck, Recollections of Samuel Breck, H. E. Scudder, editor (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877), 35-6.

Image source: Photograph by Robert Tema.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.