When Thanksgiving Tradition Included Halloween-Like Masquerading

Posted on: November 27th, 2014 at 10:34 am by

LOC

There was once a time when Thanksgiving custom more resembled Halloween masquerading than turkey and history lessons. That’s right. So get out your masks, people! Thanksgivoween is upon is. Check the history.

Two key words: masking and mumming. To surmise thousands of years of he said/he said, most agree the word masking encompasses all forms of dressing up in masks or garb: mumming, masquerades, caroling, wassailing (more on that below) etc.

The etymology of mummers traces to Middle High German, Middle English, New High German et. al. Definitely a linguistic toe to toe.  Mummers across the pond spent their time performing plays and singing, getting drunk and lascivious, gambling and cheating, but it was meant to be in good fun until one too many aristocrats were scammed out of gold and gems by mummers’ loaded dice. In 1418 a law was passed in France forbidding “mumming, plays, interludes or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment.”

Mumming can be traced back – and I do mean way back – to the 1300s, however, I’m going to skip several centuries in Europe (because this is not a book) and head over to the 18th over in good ol’ Murica: the City of Brotherly Love and its  Mummer’s Parade. I haven’t used Old Faithful in a while so:

Mummers plays were performed in Philadelphia in the 18th century as part of a wide variety of working class street celebrations around Christmas. By the early 19th century, it coalesced with two other New Year customs, shooting firearms, and the Pennsylvania German custom of “belsnickling” (adults in masks questioning children about whether they had been good during the previous year). Through the 19th century, large groups of disguised (often in blackface) working class young men roamed the streets on New Year’s Day, organizing “riotous” processions, firing weapons into the air, and demanding free drinks in taverns, and generally challenging middle and upper-class notions of order and decorum. Unable to suppress the custom, by the 1880s the city government began to pursue a policy of co-option, requiring participants to join organized groups with designated leaders who had to apply for permits and were responsible for their groups actions. By 1900, these groups formed part of an organized, city-sanctioned parade with cash prizes for the best performances.

About 15,000 mummers now perform in the parade each year. They are organized into four distinct types of troupes: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. All dress in elaborate costumes. There is a Mummers Museum dedicated to the history of Philadelphia Mummers.

Go check it out if you’re in the area. The parade takes place on New Year’s Day.

That time machine I desperately need would have just broken anyway what with all this travel, so by words we jump back to the 18th century, this time in New York City. It was during this period that children and young adults began dressing as poor people and subsequently earned the nickname “ragamuffins.” That was their disguise. The rich and the poor dressed as the poor. It was the first time cross-dressing became socially acceptable. Brothers would wear their sisters’ garments and frolic in the streets. By the late 19th century, Thanksgiving itself was known as “Ragamuffin Day.”

From The New York Times:

Dec. 1, 1899

Maskers would go door to door questioning “Anything for Thanksgiving?” Most folks handed out apples or pennies. Have a look for yourselves all courtesy of the Library of Congress:

thanksgiving-maskers1 painting-a-thanksgiving-masker 1 LOC 1911 masker ragamuffins

Come Christmas, you might just discover hefty similarities between caroling and masking/mumming. In fact, carolers were once known as Mummerers. Instead of the once traditional ragamuffin style, groups dressed in fine attire wishing good cheer to their neighbors in hopes of getting a gift in return. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” — its last verse, “Bring us some figgy pudding.” We’ll wassail you ’round Christmas time with the origins of that festive tradition.

Masking needs to make a comeback, wouldn’t you say? We all have an aunt or two who deserves a simple fright.

Happy Raggamuffin, y’all!

Recent Stories

Chad Marlow Resigns from CB3 After Removal from Committee Chair Position Over Liquor Density Fight

Newly appointed Community Board 3 chair Alysha Lewis Coleman stepped into controversy last week when she reportedly sacked member Chad Marlow from his post as Transportation committee chair, a seat he’s held for little more than a year and a half. And today he is completely resigning from the advisory board. The major bone of […]

‘Electrical Issue’ Sidelines Ludlow Street’s Sweet Chick Indefinitely

Celebrity-backed Sweet Chick has been closed and on the ropes for the last three days. Apparently, there were some unspecified “electrical issues,” and Con Edison came to shut down the waffles-and-chicken restaurant just before the busy rush on Friday evening. Computer printouts taped to the vestibule say the same – that it’s closed “temporarily” and […]

Twofold Rent Increase Forces Mexican Mainstay ‘El Maguey y La Tuna’ to Close

This is how the elder statesmen of the Lower East Side are treated. Pushed to the curb. El Maguey y La Tuna on East Houston Street, the mom-and-pop restaurant serving Mexican cuisine to the neighborhood since 2002, has two months to live. It’s apparently closing at the end of March. The culprit, but of course, […]

Epstein’s Bar Returned to Hell Square this Weekend After 2-Year Hiatus

Epstein’s Bar fought for its survival; now its revival is here. The nightspot reopened to the public on Friday night. More than two years after aborting operations at the northeast corner of Stanton and Allen Streets – for neighbors, a welcome relief – the longtime watering hole is finally back on track. The interim period was apparently […]

This is the 9-Story Glass Office Tower Replacing the Sunshine Cinema

With the Sunshine Cinema now dark – the theater closed for good last night – we have the first look at the monstrosity to replace it. A nine-story glass tower that boasts 65,000 square-feet of commercial office space and ground-floor retail. The New York Times has the scoop on the first rendering of the project, […]