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When Thanksgiving Was Weird

Oddest thing: Thanksgiving in turn-of-the-20th century America used to look a heckuva lot like Halloween.

People — young and old — got all dressed up and staged costumed crawls through the streets. In Los Angeles, Chicago and other places around the country, newspapers ran stories of folks wearing elaborate masks and cloth veils. Thanksgiving mask balls were held in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Montesano, Wash., and points in between.

In New York City — where the tradition was especially strong — a local newspaper reported in 1911 that "fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city."

Thousands of folks ran rampant, one syndicated column noted. "Horns and rattles are worked overtime. The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime."

It must have been like a strange American dream.

Mince Pies And Masquerades

Of course there was the familiar Thanksgiving fare for those who could afford it — turkey, pork, apples, figs and mince pies. But there was also a widespread weirdness that has faded away over the years.

In fact, so many people participated in masking and making merry back then that, according to a widely distributed item that appeared in the Los Angeles Times of Nov. 21, 1897, Thanksgiving was "the busiest time of the year for the manufacturers of and dealers in masks and false faces. The fantastical costume parades and the old custom of making and dressing up for amusement on Thanksgiving day keep up from year to year in many parts of the country, so that the quantity of false faces sold at this season is enormous."

Popular get-ups at the time included heads of parrots and other birds and animals, and face-coverings of various colors. "Masks of prominent men and the foremost political leaders are made by some manufacturers, and large-sized false hands, feet, noses, ears, etc., are also new and amusing," the California newspaper reported.

Some Americans wore masks that made fun of people of other nations "with greatly exaggerated facial peculiarities." More refined revelers donned soft, ghostly, painted veils made of gauzy mesh that both disguised, and improved — according to the wry writer — a person's appearance.

Most of the false faces — crafted from papier-mache — came from Germany. But several U.S. companies also got in on the act.

Ragamuffin Day

In New York: "Newspapers advertised'Thanksgiving masks' and 'lithographed character masks'for the tots," The Bowery Boys blog notes. "These featureless disguises were often sold in candy stores alongsideholiday related treats like spiced jelly gums, opera drops, crystallized ginger and tinted hard candies."

Throughout the city, people wore disguises. "There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits," the New York Times observed on Dec. 1, 1899. Some masqueraders rode horses; others straddled bicycles. Everyone "was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business."

So many youngsters in New York City dressed as poor people, Thanksgiving Day took on a nickname: Ragamuffin Day. "Parades of ragamuffins — sometimes called 'fantastics' because of the costumes — can be dated at least to 1891," historian Carmen Nigro of the New York Public Library tells NPR.

"Children would dress themselves in rags and oversized, overdone parodies of beggars (a la Charlie Chaplin's character 'The Tramp')," Carmen writes on the library's blog. "The ragamuffins would then ask neighbors and adults on the street, 'Anything for Thanksgiving?' The usual response would be pennies, an apple, or a piece of candy."

By 1930, the library blog reports, some New Yorkers were ready to move on. School Superintendent William J. O'Shea instructed administrators that "modernity is incompatible with the custom of children to masquerade and annoy adults on Thanksgiving day" by asking for gifts and money.

Others kept the tradition alive. The Madison Square Club for Boys and Young Men, for instance, put on Ragamuffin Parades in an attempt to bring order to the occasion. The 1940 parade, according to the library blog, featured more than 400 children and touted the group's motto: "American boys do not beg."

Ragamuffin parades continued to be popular into the 1950s, but they were eventually overpowered by another burgeoning tradition catapulted into prominence by the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street. The new symbol of Thanksgiving also showcased people in fantastic masks and costumes and, in addition, hoisted giant character-based balloons. It was called Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Outside Reading: Thanksgiving Maskerson boingboing and A Forgotten Thanksgiving Custom on HuffPost.

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.