“When Thanksgiving Was Ragamuffins, Not Turkeys”


Erin Lynch, Staff Writer

Our Thanksgiving celebration is usually the same. You wake up to a beautiful fall day, have a nice small breakfast (to save room for all of the food later of course), and sit down to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. If you host for your family, your house begins to smell like turkey, potatoes, and other delicious foods. Then later you celebrate with family and friends for a delicious feast. Well, if we were living any time between 1900 and the 1930s, we would be preparing for something slightly different: the Ragamuffin parade. 

We know what you’re thinking: what is a Ragamuffin and why was there a parade? Well, let’s start from the beginning. It all started shortly after President Abe Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. Young children, particularly in New York City, had the day off from school and would dress up in old, run-down clothes that could be torn, dirty, and were anything they could find at home. With all of the kids dressed up in old clothes (rags), they inspired the tradition’s name, Ragamuffins! 

Ragamuffins or Ragamuffin Day would include the children going door to door and begging for Thanksgiving treats asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” The little ragamuffins would get anything from pennies, fruits, or trinkets from goods they had collected from each house they visited in the Big City. The Thanksgiving tradition started to get more recognition in the 1870s. With most children still dressing as ragamuffins, the kids would add different elements to their costumes such as face paint and masks. Around this time many costume businesses began to take off as well, and some kids who took part in Ragamuffin Day would be seen getting more creative with their costumes, dressing up as animals, sailors, and more.

This extremely popular Thanksgiving activity pulled more and more children to the streets of the Big Apple every year. The number of kids that flooded the streets eventually formed into what is known as the Ragamuffin Day Parade, which quickly became a part of the Ragamuffin Day tradition.

Unfortunately, many children who participated in the activity started to get greedy. The Ragamuffins would go to houses harassing the residents for more treats and goodies, causing many adults to start to dislike the Thanksgiving tradition. Most Ragamuffins were good and enjoyed the holiday, but there were still some kids who began to ruin it for the others. Even though many adults stopped handing out treats, the Ragamuffins did not stop participating in their beloved tradition until the Great Depression struck. The Great Depression was a devastating time for all Americans. The children still wanted to continue to take part in Ragamuffin day, but with the times going on, begging for food was nothing to joke about. The tradition immediately started to become a lot less popular and by 1957 the last Ragamuffin parade was held. By this time the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was gaining more and more recognition. Some children tried to keep the tradition alive but were unable to. The idea of Ragamuffin Day was still missed at the time by many but soon came back, back as what we know as Trick or Treating, which would now take place on Halloween.

The Thanksgiving custom deserves more credit than is given for the inspiration of not only one but two new holiday traditions that are loved dearly. For many Ragamuffin Day was more important than the turkey and mashed potatoes for dinner, but as unforgettable moments of their childhood!