Pope Night: An Old Religious Hatred

Do you think the religious hatred we’re seeing now is new in America? Oh, no, in Boston it goes way back to the beginning. Only then it was the hatred of Protestants for Catholics and Pope Night was its most extreme example.

What’s that? You have never heard of Pope Night? No surprise there—it hasn’t existed since 1777. Even so, you and your children have enjoyed an artifact of that awful “holiday,” a reminder that happens every year at this time.

Pope Night and the Gunpowder Plot

Burning "The Guy"

Guy Fawkes Night Bonfire

Pope Night was, itself, an extension of an earlier British holiday—Guy Fawkes Day. This holiday celebrates the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot, in which, some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to assassinate Protestant King James I and his entire government.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on November 5, 1605. This would kick off a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. The British remember this story each November 5th when citizens burn ‘Guys,’ or effigies of Guy Fawkes, in a celebration known as “Bonfire Night.”

On this side of the pond, Guy Fawkes Day transmogrified into Pope Night, which was characterized by mobs of young men, mostly of the lower classes, running wild in the streets. Pope Night was part celebration and part gang war, as well as the city’s biggest annual holiday. Stern Puritan Boston gave the common people little opportunity to let their hair down and act up. Why did the Puritans allow Pope Night when they paid little heed even to Christmas?  The Puritans were firmly anti-Papist. After all, they wanted to “purify” the Anglican Church of any Catholic influence.  They would have found denigration of the Catholic Pope agreeable.

Parades and Bonfires

Pope Night, effigy, riots, Boston

Pope Night Cart

Pope Night started with two costumed parades, as the North End Gang and the South End Gang marched through the streets, each carrying outsized effigies of the Pope and the Devil. Sometimes a hated political figure, like the Tax Collector or an enemy, joined the images. The gangs pulled these figures through the streets on decorated carts. (Think Mardi Gras, but without trucks.)

When the two parades met, the men would start brawling. The winners took the losers’ cart and effigies and then burned the images in a bonfire either on Boston Common or atop Copp’s Hill in the North End.  The town’s few constables could not control the mobs and the fighting.

Remembering the Quebec Act

Just as Guy Fawkes’ Day had political roots in England, Pope Night reminded everyone in Boston how the British colonies had battled French Canadian Catholics and stirred up resentment over the Quebec Act of 1774. This Act of Parliament guaranteed the free exercise of the Catholic faith in Canada and granted the Ohio territory to Canada.

All of this religious acrimony originated in the sixteenth century, of course, when Henry VIII created the Church of England to divorce his Catholic Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The atrocities Catholics and Protestants perpetrated upon each other in the following decades left deep scars that were still raw in the eighteenth century.

Buy My Pope Some Drink

As part of Pope Night, boys in costume—sometimes wearing petticoats—ran from door to door carrying small figures with heads carved from potatoes on pieces of board. The boys would knock on doors and chant:

“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 practice got its origins in Medieval times when people went “souling.” This meant going from door to door begging for soul cakes, small currant biscuits offered in exchange for prayers. Some might remember the Peter Paul and Mary song, “A Soalin’.”

“The streets are very dirty, my shoes are very thin
I have a little pocket to put a penny in
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’ penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you.”

The General Who Ended Pope Night

General Washington, Cambridge, Pope NightPope Night lasted until 1775 when George Washington, headquartered in Cambridge, got wind of it and ridiculed it as a “ridiculous and childish custom.” He also realized that the crude exhibition of religious hatred would not help with his diplomatic efforts. Gen. Washington declared Pope Night improper “at a time when we are soliciting, and have really obtained the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada.”

Still, killing Pope Night was not that easy. It reared its ugly head again in the next two years. Then France became our ally in the Revolutionary War, contributing much-needed money, soldiers, and supplies. Mocking the French king as he was helping us seemed ungrateful. Also, cheering the English king for surviving the Gunpowder Plot did not fit well with our own attempts to defeat his troops. Pope Night disappeared as a Boston holiday.

Ghosts of Pope Night Past

Two aspects of Pope Night remained, however, and were built into the Halloween we celebrate today. One was the bonfires and the other was the practice of costumed children going door to door and demanding treats. The carved potato-head Popes turned into pumpkin jack-o-lanterns and candy replaced money as the currency of choice.

Jack o Lanterns, Keene NH, Jack o Lantern festivalPope Night has, thankfully, receded into Boston history and few know of it these days. That’s a good thing as we don’t need any more excuses for Americans to mock or disparage others because of their faith. But on Monday, November 5, you might feel some gratitude toward George Washington for putting an end to Pope Night.

The synchronicity of Halloween, Pope Night, and a hate-based attack on a religious community feel particularly relevant this year. Two days ago we remembered the liberation of Auschwitz. On Tuesday, November 6, you can register your feelings about religious violence at the polls.