If it was known at all outside of New York City, it was because of a chapter in Betty Smith‘s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn where Francie dons a mask and becomes an urchin on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn at Thanksgiving. Indeed, long before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade appeared in New York City, there was the Ragamuffin Parade; a much smaller but equally cherished tradition. However, unlike Macy’s annual event, the Ragamuffin Parade was an occasion solely for children; and, similar to Halloween’s custom of trick-or-treating (also preceding it by many years), it was a time for kids to masquerade and visit door-to-door.
Actually, the Ragamuffin Parade wasn’t a single parade but a series of improvised parades (or gatherings, to be more specific) held throughout the city. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, the parades usually occurred in immigrant neighborhoods and historians suspect that the custom may have originated in Europe. While their mothers were cooking Thanksgiving dinner, hordes of kids would transform themselves into paupers. Smearing burnt cork or charcoal on their faces (sometimes they merely wore masks), they’d dress in their parents’ old and, naturally, over-sized clothing and went off “begging.” Making their way down adjacent streets, they held out their hands for apples, pennies or candy with the chant, “Anything for Thanksgiving.”
In the early days of the tradition, “Ragamuffin” parades were held and children dressed in more elaborate costumes as well as the more tattered ones. The parades became a chance for the poorer immigrants to march through the street in extravagant costumes. More organized parades were established in 1923 by a director of the Madison Square Boys Club for the sole purpose of discouraging begging on the holiday among the youth of the city. An item in the New York Times of November 25, 1938 notes that eight year old Frank Manino came dressed as the mayor (“Fiorello”) and others impersonated John L. Lewis and Thomas E. Dewey, with the piece de resistance was “Ferdinand the Bull.” The first prize of a 15 lb. turkey went to an 11 year old boy dressed as a scarecrow. UE
The custom continued into the early 1960s, despite being replaced by Halloween as an excuse for such frivolity in the late 1940s, but is still observed in certain parts of Brooklyn; the Bay Ridge section, in particular. Having been born and raised in Bensonhurst (which is adjacent to Bay Ridge) in 1954, I myself haven’t seen nor do I recall any ragamuffins on Thanksgiving or any other day (beyond the usual unfortunates who play the part all year round) but I’ll take urban lore’s word for it.
Even though my pre-Thanksgiving dinner time was spent absorbed in watching Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers and other televised holiday treats, dressing up as a ragamuffin and annoying my neighbors could have been just as delightful.
Sources: Long Live the Ragamuffin Parade
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