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Thanksgiving Ragamuffin Parade

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 Waverly Place ; Sheridan Square ; Columbus Circle.],Thanksgiving ragamuffins, No.58-60., Digital ID 733369F, New York Public LibraryWaverly Place; Sheridan Square; Columbus Circle., Thanksgiving ragamuffins, No.58-60., NYPL Digital Gallery

When searching for Thanksgiving images in our Digital Gallery, you might be surprised to find a set of about 20 images of Thanksgiving "ragamuffins."  Who are these young beggars and what do they have to do with Thanksgiving?

Before Halloween was the holiday known for dressing up in costume and begging for candy (this practice did not become common until the 1940's and 50's), children in NYC often participated in what was called Ragamuffin Day.  On Ragamuffin Day - which was Thanksgiving Day - children would dress themselves in rags and oversized, overdone parodies of beggars (a la Charlie Chaplin's character "The Tramp").  The ragamuffins would then ask neighbors and adults on the street, "Anything for Thanksgiving?"  The usual response would be pennies, an apple, or a piece of candy. 

The New York Tribune ran an article on November 21, 1909 which dated the tradition 40 years back to about 1870.  Reverend James M. Farrar said, "Those of you who have always lived in New York do not think of this Thanksgiving game of ragamuffin as a strange custom, but the strangers coming to our city are greatly surprised, and ask what it means."  Farrar thought that the tradition of "dressing in old clothes, many sizes too large, painting their faces or putting on masks" was "here to stay."

 Bleecker Street - Perry Street.],Thanksgiving ragamuffins, No.16-18., Digital ID 733355F, New York Public LibraryManhattan: Bleecker Street - Perry Street., Thanksgiving ragamuffins, No.16-18., NYPL Digital Gallery

However, by 1930, articles were appearing in The New York Times calling for the end of the practice.  William J. O'Shea, Superintendent of schools at the time, sent a circular to the district superintendents and principals which stated that "modernity is incompatible with the custom of children to masquerade and annoy adults on Thanksgiving day."  Shea also stated, "many citizens complain that on Thanksgiving Day they are annoyed by children dressed as ragamuffins, who beg for money and gifts."  
 
O'Shea's plea to end the tradition must have carried some gravitas because that year The New York Times reported that "Parading Thanksgiving Ragamuffins Scarce, Except Out Where City's Subway Lines End."  A Times Square policeman interviewed in the article stated, "all I've seen is just about six kids dressed up like we used to dress in the old days.  Things ain't the way they used to be."  The article also seems to lament the loss of the "splashes of color" and stated, "instead of the usual droves of hilarious youngsters in false faces and outlandish garb... one encountered only one or two every half hour.  The ragamuffin is vanishing."

The Ragamuffin tradition was much more difficult to quash in the outer boroughs.  The Times reported that "in Flatbush, the Bronx, Greenpoint, and other places where the subway lines end, the ragamuffin tradition persists somewhat more tenaciously." 

In 1936, The New York Times' only mention of the ragamuffins is to state:

"Ragamuffins Frowned Upon: Despite the endeavors of social agencies to discourage begging by children, it is likely that the customary Thanksgiving ragamuffins, wearing discarded apparel of their elders, with masks and painted faces, will ask passers-by, 'anything for Thanksgiving?'"

The tradition was definitely waning through official statements of disapproval. 

In 1937, organizations such as the Madison Square Boys Club were reported as having Thanksgiving parades as an effort "to discourage the Thanksgiving ragamuffins."  By 1940, that parade had grown in size to over 400 children and sported the slogan "American boys do not beg."  Though the parading boys still dressed in costume as ragamuffins, many donned costumes of other things and people - such as alarm clocks and Michelangelo. 

 Central Park West - 60th Street.],Celebrations - Parades - Municipal events - Macy's Thanksgiving Parade., Digital ID 731241F, New York Public LibraryMacy's Thanksgiving Parade, NYPL Digital GalleryThe Ragamuffin parade continued to grow and annual mentions of it appear in The New York Times.  In 1943, there is a mention of a 25 year-old man who was arrested while "attired in an ill-fitting assortment of women's clothing over khaki Army trousers peeping from under a drab gray dress."  His wife had to explain to the magistrate that he was dressed for a Thanksgiving Ragamuffin party. 

The last mention of the Thanksgiving Ragamuffin parades - as one had appeared in the Bronx as well - is in 1956.  At some point the Ragamuffin parade was ceased and it had been overshadowed by the larger, balloon-oriented, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that gained nation-wide populatrity after the success of the film Miracle on 34th Street.  Ragamuffin traditions were ceded to the rise Halloween which fostered the "begging" of candy again through trick-or-treating and brought costuming to a whole new level.  Hopefully, no official social agencies will try and squash this costumed holiday, but I imagine that if they did, they would receive greater resistance. 

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But it never died completely...

The Ragamuffin Day Parades that I participated in during MY youth were not in the 20's, 30's or 40's but rather in the early 60's in Astoria Queens New York. The Boy's Club of Queens (as it was known in the pre-equality days) located at 21st Street and 30th Road actually fielded a marching band complete with Drums, Coronets, Trumpets, Glockenspiels and more that marched in this great event every year for quite a few. We went up 30th (Grand) Avenue (at night) to Steinway, across Steinway and down again Broadway (or was it 31st Avenue?) with all the neighborhoods coming out to greet the Ragamuffins and the musical hoopla. We even had uniforms!! Other groups participated as well, names escape me at this juncture, but it was a community event well known in the area. I'll bet the Boy's Club has archives with photos even. What was the name of that great band instructor that came every week to mold us into a band of marching musicians? What a great experience!

Ragamuffins on Thanksgiving

We didn't have any ragamuffin parades, but dressing up as ragamuffins and going door to door asking "Anythin' for Thanksgivin'?" was universal in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, Queens in the 40s and early 50s. The practice started dying out around 1953 or 54, and by the late 50s absolutely no kids did this anymore in that part of Queens. People would give you oranges, apples, nuts, or pennies, but I don't recall anybody giving you candy. My mother, and I am sure every mother preparing a Thanksgiving meal and awaiting company, considered the whole ragamuffin thing a royal pain, and I would guess that shared sentiment is one of the reasons this long-term tradition ended.

Thanksgiving begging

After we moved from Ridgewood, Brooklyn, to Maspeth, Queens, I became aware of a tradition called "begging anything for Thanksgiving", unheard of in my former neighborhood. I guess I was about 11 years )old, (circa 1949), the first holiday that I did this. Dressed in a "pilgrim costume" my mom had made for a school play at my previous school, I walked from my home near the intersection of Eliot and Metropolitan Aves (just across from the Ridgewood, Queens border) My sister, some school friends and I walked up the big Eliot Ave. hill where there were many more homes than on the street where I lived. Up the hill eastbound, collecting apples, nuts and coins, and downward, westbound gathering even more. Most folks were caring and giving; some were not in such a happy mood but were not mean, just wanted to be left alone - but had no way to indicate that since it was daylight and no porch lights could be turned off like today for Halloween. We were ecstatic when we arrive home to find out just what we had collected...of course I have no recollection now just how much money or number of apples and oranges we brought home, nor what we did w/the money; perhaps saved to buy Christmas gifts for each other. It was a fun time, safe enough for kids to be out in their neighborhood without worry of who might "grab us" or cause harm in some other way. Thanks for the opportunity to share this bit of history and fond memories.

I wasn't imagining it!

For over 55 years, I've lived in Alabama. No one will believe me when I tell of going begging on Thanksgiving when I was a child in Roosevelt, Long Island in the 1940's. We were beyond the outer boroughs, sandwiched in between Freeport and Hempstead. I remember the warm welcomes and great smells coming from our neighbors' houses, the burnt cork and old clothes and the paper grocery bags that never got anywhere near full. On Halloween, we went Halloweening, when we rang doorbells, turned over porch furniture and chalked sidewalks. People have been so amazed at the strangeness of these customs, I've sometimes thought I imagined them. I left Long Island when I was 21 and had no one to check these memories with until I finally got the bright idea of asking Google. So there you are, I didn't imagine it!

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