Arts and Culture. Time Machine - 1899. When Thanksgiving was weird.

By New York Times

Arts & Culture

Time Machine (1899): When Thanksgiving was weird.

By New York Times

Editor's Note: We generally think of Thanksgiving and Halloween as very different holidays, but a century ago Thanksgiving Day featured mischief, masks and trick-or-treating. The Los Angeles Times of Nov. 21, 1897, said 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."

The strange practice of "Thanksgiving masking" was actually an ancient tradition of "mumming," where men in costumes floated from door to door, asking for food and money, sometimes in exchange for music. The annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade traces back to this tradition which some believe began in the 17th century, combining European and African heritages.

Thanksgiving then was also a time for acts of charity, and, of course, food. The following New York Times article, published on December 1, 1899, explains the traditions of the time in New York City.

Contentment Reigned On Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving was yesterday celebrated in this city in happy, orderly, and comfortable fashion. The weather, delightfully fine for this season of the year, was no small factor in the general result. There were abundant evidences of prosperity and good times in the garb and bearing of wage earners. Contentment appeared to reign everywhere. There was lavish incentive to be thankful. None need have gone hungry.

The chief feature of the day was the street charivari, not only of the girls and boys, but of young men and women. Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal. Fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city. Not a few of the maskers and mummers wore disguises that were recognized as typifying a well-known character or myth. There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits, Deweys, and Columbines that well supported their roles. The mummery, as a rule, was limited to boys in women’s skirts or in masks. In the poorer quarters a smear of burned cork and a dab of vermillion sufficed for babbling celebrants. Some of the masqueraders were on bicycles, others on horseback, a few in vehicles. All had a great time. The good humored-crowd abroad was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.