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The Tradition of Thanksgiving and the Ragamuffin Parade

Over time Thanksgiving Day has evolved not only as a day to give thanks and a time for the family to get together, but a time to indulge in the foods of the season, to watch the Macy’s parade, watch sports, and get ready for the upcoming holiday season. This year, we look at many of those traditions and reasons to give thanks in a new way. The traditional celebration with the extended family will mean that many families will not get together in person, filling that one central home with the sounds and scents of the season. Many will be getting together virtually with a “Zoom Thanksgiving” so that next year we may all be together once again.

Thanksgiving becomes a National Holiday

Ever since we were small children we were told the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving but how did it become a national holiday?

“During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation...he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday...In 1827, the noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale—author, among countless other things, of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians, earning her the nickname the “Mother of Thanksgiving.” Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.”

Check out the Library of Congress site Today in History and learn more facts about Nov. 26th

Ragamuffins: A Thanksgiving Tradition of the Past

“Anything for Thanksgiving?”

This phrase, uttered by a child generally dressed in a manner posing as a beggar, would greet a passerby or follow a knock on a door on Thanksgiving Day. The tradition evolved in the 1870s after Lincoln had declared the Thanksgiving holiday in 1863 and it may be considered the predecessor to today’s Halloween.

It is primarily associated with New York City although the tradition could be found in other cities and communities. “Ragamuffins” who uttering the phrase would receive candies, fruit or even coins. Those who did not provide a “treat” would often be confronted with a “trick”. Eventually the costumes moved away from the beggar or hobo. Face painting and commercial costumes and masks began to be sold and soon became very popular. Children, also known as “maskers”, would “parade” through the neighborhoods collecting their treats as they went. The tradition continued into the 20th century, but popularity waned during the depression and with local opposition eventually the tradition all but disappeared. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and Halloween became the new traditions.

Bain News Service. Left: Thanksgiving Maskers, ca 1910. Right: Painting a Thanksgiving Masker, 1911. Library of Congress.

A search of the website New York State Historic Newspapers for the term “Ragamuffin Parade” in Suffolk County finds that the term has continued to be used in some Long Island communities into the present day, but in the 1950s it had become the community Halloween parade and was no longer held on Thanksgiving Day.

The Ragamuffin Guards were the boys of the St. John's Protectory, an orphanage and farm located in Hicksville where the Broadway Mall now stands. HixNews Memory Lane

The Long Islander, 5 Dec. 1892.

The Long Islander 27 Nov. 1897
The Long Islander, 27 Nov. 1914

South Side Signal (Babylon), 28 Nov. 1913

The Long Islander, 9 Nov. 1950.

Additional sources:

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