Bizarre History: Thanksgiving Masking

Thanksgiving maskingUp until about a week ago, I thought I knew everything worth knowing about Thanksgiving. I know about Pilgrims and Native Americans. I know that it’s a good idea to wear pants with a little give in the waistline on Thanksgiving Day. I know umpteen ways to use Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. And, quite frankly, if there was anything I did not know about Thanksgiving, I would at least know how to call the Butterball hotline for the definitive information.

Now, the good folks manning the hotline for Butterball may be able to tell me how long it will take to thaw a 30-pound turkey, but I’m pretty sure that even they don’t know about this little morsel of Thanksgiving history: Thanksgiving “masking.” In case you too have been in the dark about this Thanksgiving tradition of yesteryear, allow me to tell you what I’ve learned.

Long Before There Was Macy’s

Blog2Long before kids were dressing in costumes and trick or treating on Halloween, they were dressing in costumes and going door-to-door on Thanksgiving. Say what?!?!? It’s true. While this tradition took place in various parts of the country, it was particularly popular in New York City. The kids could expect to receive fruit, candy, or a penny at each door. It sounds a lot like Thanksgivingoween to me!

The beginnings of the tradition probably date all the way back to the late 18th century when a group of cross-dressing men, known as “The Fantastics,” used to parade around New York City on Thanksgiving. That means that the tradition not only predates the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it also predates R.H. Macy himself by about twenty-five years. These Thanksgiving parades, called fantasticals, became an annual occurrence in New York City.

So, how exactly did parades of costumed men turn into Thanksgiving masking? It’s difficult to get a full picture of the evolution of how a parade of merry-making men evolved into hordes of children begging in the streets, but the evolution did occur. Masking seems like a new twist on “mumming,” which dates back to the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Mumming was the act of costumed men going door-to-door asking for food and money. Once again, history repeats itself. . .there really is nothing completely new under the sun, is there?!?!

Taking It to the Streets

Little Talks to Little PeopleBy the late 19th century, the kids had also taken to the streets. A children’s book from 1910, entitled, Little Talks to Little People, included a section on “Thanksgiving Ragamuffins.” The author writes, “The children, quick to see a chance for fun, began to imitate the grown-ups. Dressing in old clothes many sizes too large, painting their faces or putting on a mask, the children went out to mimic the seniors. The grown-ups have given up their custom, but the children keep up the imitation.”

Blog5Since there was no such thing as Pinterest at that time, moms probably didn’t feel the need to forego sleep for a week in order to create costumes for their kids. The kids typically dressed as hobos and beggars. It was also perfectly acceptable to throw your daughter’s clothes onto your son and declare him costumed.

Toy stores and candy shops sold plastic masks that look a lot like the stifling Halloween masks of the 1970s—the kind with the elastic band to hold them in place and the eyeholes that never quite matched up to the actual placement of your eyes. In 1909, Appleton’s Magazine wrote, “This play of masking is deeply rooted in the New York child. All toy shops carry a line of hideous and terrifying false faces or ‘dough faces’ as they are termed on the East Side.”

Blog6No money for a store bought mask? No problem! A kid could simply throw on his dad’s jacket, smudge his face with some coal and hit the Thanksgiving masking circuit. They were supposed to be beggars and hobos, after all.

Here’s an extra bit of trivia for you: During WWI, advertisers tried to convince parents that gas masks were perfect for their little beggars.

Disapproving Looks

Blog7Thanksgiving masking was generally frowned upon in polite society. The fear was that the children were receiving training to be beggars. Sometimes, it seems to me that the term “polite society” is code for “no fun at all.” But, there was ongoing concern that masking was creating a generation of morally corrupt blackmailers. In fact, New York Times stories dating from 1903 to 1930, expressed concern for the character of the Thanksgiving maskers. Organizations even began coordinating special parades and costume contests just for the children. I like to think of those as the precursors to the Fall Festival.

Nails in the Coffin

Thanksgiving paradeThere do seem to have been a couple of nails in the coffin of Thanksgiving masking. The first really was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has it’s maiden voyage in 1924. As much fun as dressing in your sister’s clothes and begging for apples is, it’s tough to compete with the fun of watching floats, bands and animals traipse down the streets of New York City. Plus, the parade had Santa Claus. It’s really tough to compete with that kind of star power!

The biggest and heaviest nail in the coffin was undoubtedly the Great Depression. Suddenly, it seemed like the high society people had a point. It did seem to be in poor taste to dress as beggars and hobos when so many people were struggling to survive. The tradition appears to have died out completely by the 1940s.

Everything Old is New Again

Thanksgiving costumesIt’s sort of a shame that Thanksgiving masking came to an end. I think we should reinstate it. So, this year, as you’re waiting for your turkey to reach an internal temperature of 165-170 degrees Fahrenheit (which is what the Butterball hotline people recommend), you can regale your guests with tales of a long forgotten Thanksgiving tradition. Then you can surprise your neighbors by dressing up as hobos and asking for apples and pennies!

But, you know, there’s a lot going on in November. Why don’t we move masking to the last day in October? Kids can dress in costumes and go door-to-door begging for candy. Only let’s not limit it to hobos. I think we should get Disney princesses in on the act! Oh, wait. . .

Happy Thanksgiving, all y’all!

Anita Lequoia

9 Replies to “Bizarre History: Thanksgiving Masking”

  1. There used to be a website-now gone- on this custom that I remember well-in Jersey City @ 1954-55- but also took place in Brooklyn and the Bronx.Seems it came from a combination of “souling” from Ireland and other European traditions of masking that morphed into this- Ragamuffin Day and Anything for Thanksgiving that began in this country.Hard to find anyone who still remembers!

    1. When I tell people about this Thanksgiving tradition, they don’t believe me. But I too grew up in Jersey City and it was definitely the custom. The cook of the house hated us because she had to continually run to the door for these snotty kids. If they tried to get around answering the door, they would put a basket of apples on the porch, but some smart guy would usually empty it before I got there. Yes, that is what we said when the Mrs. answered the door, “Anything for Thanksgiving.”

  2. I grew up in Jersey City NJ and my best friend and I always went begging on Thanksgiving. Her grandfather lived with her and my grandmother lived with me. She would be a hobo and I would be an old lady. This was in the 50s and we are still friends today. She is the one who sent me this article

  3. I grew up in Jersey City, and also went around in costume for Thanksgiving. When I became older and mentioned it to some friends, they didn’t believe me, they had never heard of the tradition. Only when I moved to the Greenville section of Jersey City and met my friend Rose, was I believed, because she did it too, and knew all about the tradition.
    It was definitely real.

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