It’s eleven days until New Year’s Eve, which means downtown visitors can expect to see the familiar figures of regional holiday characters Little Paul, Manuel the Turk and John Portuguese wandering the Central Corridor, Downtown, Boardwalk, South Factoryville and Daisyland Amusement districts.
Inspired by a tradition which dates as far back as 1780, the three figures are typically portrayed by a trio of the city’s less fortunate population of indigents, decked out in the familiar brown, green and violet robes and smocks of the three immigrant troublemakers. The legend has it that the original Paul, Manuel and John spent the eleven days prior to New Year’s and the three days immediately following involved in a series of misadventures and mischief, beginning with an escape from bonded servitude under their Dutch taskmasters and ending with the theft of cranberry tarts from a local baker, the acquisition of stolen kisses from one of the city’s prominent matrons, and the burning to the ground of the Lord Governor’s mansion and stable of horses.
The City’s holiday shoppers and Christmastime lookie-loos are encouraged to gift the wandering figures with candy treats and small amounts of money. Tight-pursed passers-by might be met with the mocking tones of the trio’s derisive song:
“We three mischief makers
Little Paul, Manuel the Turk
and John Portuguese,
Are not so wicked as the lot of these
Who daren’t give us sweets or coin!”
Children often join in the malicious tune, and are encouraged to jeer and stamp their feet loudly at the end of the ditty, or to follow the offending targets until they relent and give some tribute to the three wanderers.
In 1988, legislation was passed to limit the number of Little Pauls, Manuel the Turks and John Portugueses wandering the downtown area, as homeless persons from three neighboring states had, increasingly over the years, taken to virtually flooding the streets in an attempt to make off with their share of holiday charity. Such shenanigans led to the infamous John Portuguese mob riots of 1984, which ended in the suspension from duty of twelve police officers and the death of an Oregon hobo.
Nowadays, the City’s homeless hopefuls audition for the roles before a group of judges selected by the City Council. Unauthorized masqueraders may find themselves literally run out of town on a rail, during the New Year’s Eve festivities at the Coalborough Railyards.
Participants’ costumes are kindly sewn each year by the Ladies’ Lodge for Uprightness, a former women’s anti-suffrage organization (Their motto: “Helping those who are bootless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, which will be provided.”) lately given to bake sales and scholarship drives.
– J. Morris