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The weirdest New York Thanksgiving tradition you’ve probably never heard of

Will Gleason

There was a time in New York when Thanksgiving looked a lot like a different holiday that we’ve come to know and love: Halloween. Or at least, a very warped, extremely offensive version. Every Thanksgiving, children across the city would wear masks and costumes—often dressing up as hobos in threadbare clothing—and walk around the city asking strangers, “Anything for Thanksgiving?”

The day was known as Ragamuffin Day and was once the busiest time of the year for costume stores and mask suppliers in NYC. The marauding bands of urban youth were often given candy, apples or pennies by adults, but once the holiday fell out of fashion in the ‘30s, the fake hobo children increasingly got “red pennies” thrown at them by disapproving adults—pennies that had been heated over the stove and meant to burn tiny fingers. (Not okay.)

The New York Tribune ran an article on November 21, 1909 which dated the tradition to about 1870. Reverend James M. Farrar said, "Those of you who have always lived in New York do not think of this Thanksgiving game of ragamuffin as a strange custom, but the strangers coming to our city are greatly surprised, and ask what it means." 

The practice was going out of vogue by the 1930s, and newspapers called for an end to the practice. On top of that, a new tradition had started with people parading up and down the streets of New York in colorful masks and costumes: the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

As a policeman told the New York Times in 1947, “I remember the fun we had when we used to go out all dressed up for Thanksgiving and the people dropped red pennies out the window.. but they don’t have real fun like that anymore.”

See photos of the strange forgotten custom below:

h/t Ephemeral New York and NPR

Photograph: Library of Congress

Photograph: Library of Congress

Photograph: Library of Congress


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