When Thanksgiving Tradition Included Halloween-Like Masquerading

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

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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:

This image has been archived or removed.
This image has been archived or removed.
This image has been archived or removed.
This image has been archived or removed.
This image has been archived or removed.

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!

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