Though not as widely remembered as Halloween, there was a time when another popular day would see kids dress up and knock on doors looking for treats.
While we now consider Thanksgiving a time for family, football, turkey, and that big parade, after Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, many festivities and traditions sprang up in the wake of that decision.
According to the 1873 book Old New England Traits, in the early 19th century, poorer Massachusetts residents started knocking on doors on the eve of Thanksgiving, begging, “Something for Thanksgiving?”
Not to be outdone, New York City brought the trend to the next level. Children dressed up in all manner of costumes and begged strangers for treats. Kids would often dress down, wearing poor people’s clothing as a costume, garnering the nickname of Ragamuffins. They would be rewarded with candies, fruits or even pennies.
This tradition, beginning in 1870, actually preceded Halloween’s trick or treating.
So many kids were participating, that by the 1900s, it came to be called Ragamuffin Day. The tradition was so popular at one point, city officials staged an annual parade to commemorate both Thanksgiving and the British evacuation of New York. Ragamuffin Day was particularly popular among Irish immigrants.
By the 1920s, ragamuffins faced competition in the newly established Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This event kicked off the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and took both attention, and viable space, away from the sometimes mischievous ragamuffins. The Macy’s parade was enough of a success to push Ragamuffin Day into obscurity, although prohibition and the Great Depression also had a heavy hand in its demise.
Much like the backlash against Halloween trick-or-treaters, by the 1930s, the public began to state the holiday needed to end. The New York Times claimed it was nothing more than an unpleasant distraction for adults. Some sadistic New Yorkers even threw stove-heated coins – known as “red pennies” – onto the street and howled in laughter as kids burned their fingers picking them up.
Red pennies failed to stop the ragamuffins, but the Great Depression did. Those struggling to find work during the Great Depression thought of the begging children as a reminder of themselves they didn’t want to see, as many had to resort to begging to survive.
Thanksgiving soon reverted to a more family-oriented holiday, and by 1950, trick-or-treating had shifted to its new home – Halloween. The change left grown-up ragamuffins nostalgic, even about red pennies. “I remember how my fingers got blistered,” patrolman Leo Carey recalled to The New York Times. “But they don’t have any real fun like that any more.”
Ragamuffin parades continued in the outer boroughs of New York City after losing popularity in Manhattan. The parades are still held in the area, including in Bay Ridge, held since 1966, Park Ridge, New Jersey, and in Hoboken, New Jersey. Other communities include the Westchester County municipalities Pleasantville and Briarcliff Manor (where the parade has been held for about 30 years).
In September 2016, a street in Bay Ridge was renamed “Ragamuffin Way” in honor of the neighborhood’s 50-year-old tradition.
Do you have any family that told you stories about being a ragamuffin or Ragamuffin Day? We would love to hear.