November 21, 2016

Trick Or Treat For Turkey? Masked Beggars At Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is full of traditions. Eating turkey, baking pies, watching football, putting on a costume and begging for food from neighbors...

What's that? You don't dress up and beg for food? Well, I suppose it's not a tradition anymore, but in the past it was common for children to dress up on Thanksgiving and go door to door, asking their neighbors for food.

Records of it can be found in the early 19th century, when the destitute would ask for food from their wealthier neighbors. Here is an account from Salem in the 1820s or 1830s:

For two days before Thanksgiving Day our back door was besieged by pensioners, who all came with the same whining request, "Please give me something for Thanksgiving." My mother always had ready a store of rice, flour, Indian meal and apples, which were dispensed to the crowd, while the more favored family retainers were given in addition tea, sugar, raisins, and oftentimes a pair of chickens or a turkey. Each one brought a stout cotton pillow case into which the measure of rice would be poured, and then a strong twine tied tightly round the outside to separate it from the flour, which came next, and so on to the extreme capacity of the pillow case (Caroline King Howard, When I Lived In Salem, 1822 - 1866, p.110).
The people doing the begging in this case were not children, but actual adults who either needed the food or worked for the King family and collected the food almost as a bonus. While her mother seems to have taken her role seriously, Caroline King Howard's use of the word "whining" doesn't sound very charitable. Some local children even thought it was funny to dress like they were poor and go begging too:

It used to be a great joke for the young people of those days to dress up in shabby old clothes, and on the night before Thanksgiving to go around as beggars, imposing upon their friends, and I remember the glee with which my friend Lucy used to describe her working upon her mother's sympathy to such a degree, by her eloquent and lifelike personation of a poor widow with two small children to support, that her pillow case was overbrimmed with good things... (Howard, When I Lived In Salem, 1822 - 1866, p.111)
A similar account is found in George Lunt's 1873 book Old New England Traits:

It was the practice of some of this class to knock at the doors of those thought to be better off, on the evening before, begging "something for Thanksgiving"; and, by way of a joke, the children of comfortable neighbors and friends would often array themselves in cast-off bizarre habiliments, and come in bands of three or four to the houses of those
whom they knew, preferring the same request... It was a queer fancy, thus to simulate poverty... (pp. 106 - 107)
So what's going on here? The answer partly lies in the agricultural cycle of Northern Europe and England, where the first New England colonists came from. In pre-modern Northern Europe, late fall and early winter was the time when there was the most food available. The crops would have been harvested, the beer brewed, and the animals slaughtered before winter. It was often the only time of year when fresh meat was available. However, this season's rich bounty was not evenly distributed. The wealthy usually had more than they could use, while their poor neighbors often didn't have enough.

Photo: Library of Congress

The tradition of seasonal begging, sometimes called mumming or masking, arose as a way to address this disparity. The poor, often wearing masks or outrageous costumes, would travel from house to house, asking for food and alcohol. Sometimes they would sing a song or perform a short play in return. This is where the tradition of Christmas caroling comes from. Although many carols are now religiously themed, some of the older carols are explicitly about begging for food. For example, these lyrics from "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" are pretty blunt:

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Now bring us some figgy pudding

And a cup of good cheer

We won't go until we get some

We won't go until we get some

We won't go until we get some

So bring it right here

I'm listening to a version of this song right now, and it's being sung by a choir of charming children. It should really be sung by a group of drunken hungry peasants in a vaguely threatening manner.

But perhaps the children's choir is not totally inappropriate. According to Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book The Battle for Christmas, children and teens often joined their poor neighbors in their masked begging. They might not have needed the food as much, but like the poor they were very low in the social hierarchy. So maybe a choir of drunk, threatening children would be the most authentic?

Photo: Library of Congress

The Puritans who colonized New England did not condone the celebration of Christmas, claiming there was nothing in the Bible to support the raucous parties and mumming found in England and Europe. In the New World, they wanted a society free from the drunken disorder associated with Christmas and banned its observance. Instead they instituted religious holidays like Thanksgiving, where people were supposed to reflect on the good things God had given them.

Give people an inch and they'll take a mile, the old aphorism says, and that's what happened with Thanksgiving. By the early 19th century, Thanksgiving celebrations lasted for several days and involved feasting, dances, games and heavy drinking. Thanksgiving was never as raucous as the old European Christmas celebrations, but it was the closest thing New England had.

Thanksgiving is now always held on the fourth Thursday of November, but that's a recent innovation. In the past it was sometimes celebrated as late as December. Thanksgiving was in many ways the Puritan replacement for Christmas, and the masked begging associated with a traditional English Christmas became attached to Thanksgiving instead.

Interestingly, in some places this tradition continued well into the 20th century, particularly among children. I don't think New England was one of them, and the photos used in this post are mostly from New York City, where children dressed up and begged until the 1950s. Interestingly, they often dressed like poor beggars, a practice so common that children were often organized into "Ragamuffin Parades." Pretending to be poor as a joke is not something that's approved of today, so it all seems kind of weird and maybe a little cruel to me. The tradition seemed to finally die when Halloween trick-or-treating became widespread.

I think this is a fascinating topic and I have lot of questions. How widespread was this practice in New England? The two examples I found are both from Massachusetts, and in his book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday, historian James Baker claims it was only found on the North Shore. But if that's the case, how did the same practice end up in New York City?

I think there's a lot more that could be written about we ended up with the traditions that we have today. If by chance a stranger in a creepy mask knocks on your door this Thanksgiving, make sure you give them something nice to eat!


Anonymous said...

Thanksgiving is actually celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, which may or may not be the last. If November 1 is a Thursday, Thanksgiving will be on November 22, and the last Thursday of the month is the 29th.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for that! I've corrected my post. Have a great holiday!