While in the 21st century children dress up and go door to door on Halloween, if you lived several decades earlier in the New York City area you might see them doing the same thing a month later, on Thanksgiving afternoon.
My paternal grandmother grew up in Hoboken, NJ. Equal parts Italian, Irish, German, and Dutch, she was the grandchild of immigrants. She related to me recently how on Thanksgiving when she was a child, she and her friends would go “ragamuffining” — dressing in over-the-top beggar outfits and going door to door. “You just say happy Thanksgiving and they give you whatever,” she explained. “Whatever they want to give you. Money, candy, nuts, fruit. Whatever.”
While there were other types of costumes, dressing in oversized clothes and pretending to be a beggar for a day seems to have been one of the most popular. In many, if not most, instances these weren’t rich kids pretending to be poor for a day. These were the children of working class immigrants and first generation Americans dressing up as someone with even less.
Halloween, meanwhile, was a much more subdued affair. “There were some parties with a creepy theme,” she recalled, but nobody dressed in costumes or went trick-or-treating.
This tradition of “Ragamuffin Day” was hyper localized. In fact, even though he had grown up just a county away, my maternal grandfather could not recall knowing anyone who participated (although he had heard of it).
Vestiges of this unique tradition still remain. Several communities in and around New York City hold a Ragamuffin Parade every year with children in Halloween costumes. However, perhaps to coincide with the rest of the country, these parades take place on Halloween (or earlier) and not Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Day ragamuffining itself fell out of fashion. According to the Vintage News:
By the 1930s, there were calls from New York Times articles that stated the holiday needed to end, as it was nothing more than an unpleasant distraction for adults.
Claiming that the ragamuffin beggars were annoying, adults began to shun the tradition and soon parades were on the decline.
It’s not hard to imagine depression-era adults being fatigued by ragamuffins pounding at their door asking for treats. The ragamuffining tradition lasted at least until the 40s, and then faded into being little more than a quirky, local historical footnote.
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