Thursday, November 19, 2015
Thanksgiving with a Twist
A few weeks back, I found one of those amazing stories. While I was on a plane on my way to a conference, I read an article in Mental Floss magazine about how Thanksgiving used to be more like Halloween, with kids dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door asking for food and treats.
At first I didn't believe it. I consider Mental Floss a credible source, but I had never heard of this practice and I suspected maybe they were planting the seeds of an urban legend. (People have been known to do that before. I'm still not entirely convinced the Billy Possum story isn't an elaborate hoax.) But when I got home I googled it and found several other sources, including the New York Public Library, confirming such a thing, and libraries don't lie.
So that's this all about?
Well, back in the 19th century, destitute people would go door-to-door asking for help for Thanksgiving. Some kids, being enterprising twerps, I guess, started dressing as beggars and doing the same thing. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, cities began hosting masquerade balls. Then in New York City, people just went crazy with the idea and held parades for Thanksgiving/Evacuation Day (commemorating the day British forces left Revolutionary New York), complete with costumes and drunken revelry.
Although adults would eventually stop participating with costumes, the tradition for kids was firmly in place. The "Ragamuffins" would dress up and walk around their neighborhood demanding food or money. In New York, at least, Thanksgiving was sometimes known as "Ragamuffin Day," and although the practice seems to have been concentrated there, kids in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities apparently participated in this tradition, too.
At first people thought this dressing up and begging was cute, but eventually it got to be a hassle in New York, with aggressive kids harassing people on the street. People would heat up pennies until they were red-hot, then throw them into the street to watch kids scramble to pick them up and then howl in pain. Ah, the goodwill of the holidays!
Eventually educational and civic organizations started sponsoring parties and parades so kids could still dress up but without the annoying harassment (and probably to protect them from molten pennies).
Then the Depression came, no one had spare food or change anymore, and the tradition started to die out. According to the Mental Floss article, the tradition basically ended there, but according to the New York Public Library account, the tradition stuck around a bit longer in certain boroughs of New York. Commenters on that article state that kids continued the practice in some areas into the 1950s and '60s. There are a lot of people saying they thought they were crazy because they'd tell stories about dressing up and going door-to-door on Thanksgiving, and people would tell them surely they meant Halloween. Another person tells of a friend who moved from New York to a wealthy Houston suburb in the 1960s. Because the family moved just prior to Halloween they didn't have a chance to go trick-or-treating in October, so the mom sent them out "as usual" dressed as beggars on Thanksgiving, causing their new neighbors a lot of confusion (and causing embarrassment for the family).
This is an amazing story that I'd share on this blog anyway, but I might have found a way to make it extra-presidential, too. Although kids initially dressed as beggars in tattered clothes, eventually the costumes expanded to include homemade or store-bought masks and costumes. These included patriotic masks like Uncle Sam, and things like police officers, clowns, and whatnot.
I found an old Martha Washington mask for cheap on ebay, so I bought it for my "random presidential crap" collection. Could this be a Ragamuffin Day mask? I have no idea, but I'd like to think so.
Now, when you gather around the table this Thanksgiving, you can regale everyone with the tale of Ragamuffin Day. If you really want to bring back an old tradition, throw on a costume, knock on your neighbor's door, and demand food.