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Ragamuffin Day: The Precursor To Halloween That The NYT Tried To Erase

1800s | October 18, 2019

Children all ready for Ragamuffin Day. Source: (Irishcentral.com)

Kids dressed in crazy costumes going door to door begging for treats---it sounds a lot like Halloween, doesn't it? It could be, except for a few notable differences, like the fact that it took place on Thanksgiving morning. We are talking about the long-forgotten Ragamuffin Day, a tradition among the Irish immigrants of New York City that was popular before Halloween's trick-or-treating started. Let's look at this beloved tradition and how it was squashed by the New York Times and well-to-do residents of New York City.

Ragamuffin Day began shortly after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as an official holiday in 1863. Source: (washingtonexaminer.com)

Ragamuffin Day and Thanksgiving

Ragamuffin Day was born shortly after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. Young kids suddenly found themselves with a rare weekday off from school, and of course, they decided to use that time for good-natured mischief. Groups of school-aged children, particularly Irish immigrants of New York City, wore costumes and went from house to house, begging strangers for treats. The children wore old and torn clothing as costumes, which gave the tradition its name: Ragamuffin Day.

The ragamuffins spent Thanksgiving morning begging for food. Source: (npr.org)

Begging for Treats

Dressed in their poorest clothes, groups of young children took to the streets of the Big Apple. As families prepared their Thanksgiving feasts, they were inundated with knocks on the door from these ragamuffins asking for a hand-out. When trick-or-treating came around much later, children focused their begging on candy and other sweets, but on Ragamuffin Day, any food item was fair game. The ragamuffin children collected fruits, baked goods, vegetables, and even pennies and small trinkets from the houses they visited.

Some boys even used the opportunity to wear women's clothing. Source: (qz.com)

Changes in Costumes

When Ragamuffin Day was in full swing in the 1870s, children began expanding their costumes, painting their faces or wearing penny masks. Eventually, a market for commercially made costumes was born. Ragamuffin kids could be seen dressed up as animals, sailors, and businessmen. Several memoirs of the time note that some young boys chose to wear their mothers' dresses, stockings, and heels year after year, even rouging their cheeks. It seems some of them were using the occasion to experiment with more than just different snack combinations.

Ragamuffins on parade. Source: (msn.com)

The Ragamuffin Parade

As Ragamuffin Day grew more and more popular, so many children participated in the event that they all but clogged the streets of New York City every Thanksgiving morning. One news reporter quipped that they looked like a ragamuffin parade. Residents flocked to some of the more popular streets on the morning of Thanksgiving to see the children in their clever costumes. This was actually the inspiration for Thanksgiving morning parades

A few of the ragamuffins used the event to raise mischief. Source: (NYtimes.com)

Ragamuffin Day Tricks

The majority of the children who participated in Ragamuffin Day were respectful, but you know what they say about rotten apples. Folks complained that they were being harassed by some of the kids to give them more goodies. Some of the ragamuffins lit bonfires, vandalized property, and bullied younger children. Sadly, the few bad ragamuffins gave the whole group a bad name.

The wealthier citizens of NYC turned their noses up at the ragamuffins. Source: (brooklynreporter.com)

Ragamuffins Versus NYC's Elite

The ragamuffin children were no dummies. They quickly realized that to get the best goodies and treats, they should visit the homes of the city's well-to-do citizens, but the sophisticated families of the city did not take kindly to being harassed by young costumed children begging for food. Donning their own Ebenezer Scrooge costumes, they called for an end to Ragamuffin Day and the parades of children. 

The New York Times sided with the city's wealthy elite and ran a series of articles in the 1930s called for an end to Ragamuffin Day. Source: (blog.newspapers.com)

Ragamuffins Versus The New York Times

Beginning in the 1930s, a series of articles ran in The New York Times calling for an end to Ragamuffin Day. These articles cited safety concerns as well as the well-known fact that children are annoying. Still, even though many doors were now slamming in their faces, the ragamuffin children persisted with their tradition.

Unemployed men queuing outside a soup kitchen in New York during the Great Depression suddenly made begging for food a serious tragedy, not child's play. Source: (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ragamuffins Versus the Great Depression

Begging for food as a joke soon stopped being funny, what with the Great Depression and all. Ragamuffin Day was deemed in poor taste, mocking as it did those who really had fallen on hard times, and it's not like there were many treats to go around. Even some children's groups began to favor Thanksgiving Day parades in place of Ragamuffin Day parades. One group, the Madison Square Boys Club, marched with signs reading "American Boys Don't Beg."

The downfall of Ragamuffin Day led to the practice of trick or treating on Halloween. Source: (liveabout.com)

Ragamuffins Versus Halloween

Despite the downturn in the popularity of Ragamuffin Day, children still loved to dress in costumes, and the businesses that sprang up loved to sell them. By the 1940s, the idea of dressing up and begging for treats was resurrected and incorporated into another holiday: Halloween. Trick-or-treating, a new version of Ragamuffin Day, was added to Halloween celebrations, offering children the opportunity to wear cute or scary costumes and beg for candy hand-outs again. 

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was a nail in the coffin for Ragamuffin Day. Source: (10best.com)

The End of Ragamuffin Day

In 1956, the last recorded Ragamuffin Day parade was held. This event, however, was overshadowed by the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, an annual parade that started in 1924 and grew larger and larger each year. Still, Ragamuffin Day is remembered by grandparents and great-grandparents as a fun and harmless---if not entirely P.C.---annual tradition.

Tags: Halloween | Ragamuffin Day

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.