The Bizarre ‘Mumming’ History of Thanksgiving Masking

Posted on: November 24th, 2021 at 5:04 am by

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Bain News Service Collection

(Seriously that is downright terrifying on many, many levels.)

That time machine I desperately need would have just broken anyway what with all this travel, so by words we jump back to the 19th century. This time in New York City. It was during this period that children and young adults began dressing as the downtrodden and subsequently earned the nickname “ragamuffins.” That was their disguise.

The rich and the poor dressed as the poor. It was the first time cross-dressing became socially acceptable. Brothers would wear their sisters’ garments and frolic in the streets. By the late 1800s, Thanksgiving itself was known as “Ragamuffin Day.”

Now I know I called it Thanksgivoween, but Halloween in the 1900s was nothing like it is today. In fact, much research suggests Thanksgiving masking predates trick-or-treating in the United States. Trick-or-treating as we know it did not exist, and children didn’t dress in raggedy costumes or go from house to house on Halloween. These might look like Halloween pictures to us, but they didn’t look anything like Halloween in 1910.

December 1, 1899 (The New York Times)

Courtesy of the New York Public Library


Stephen Winnick from the Library of Congress goes a bit further in tracing the origins of mumming:

The claim is often made that Halloween trick-or-treating derives from the British tradition of “souling,” in which children went from door to door singing a special song at Halloween, and were given small cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the dead. Other sources suggest that the immediate predecessor of trick-or-treating was the similar ritual begging on Guy Fawkes Night, when children would ask for “a penny for the Guy.” These are more or less conjectures or educated guesses. No source has been identified in which the people responsible for beginning a community’s trick-or-treat tradition said they were influenced by souling or by Guy Fawkes (REMEMBER, REMEMBER the 5th OF NOVEMBER) begging, and although both traditions had once been practiced in America, neither was common when trick-or-treating began. But there is one similar tradition we know was widespread in America just before trick-or-treating emerged: Thanksgiving masking.

Clementing” and “Catterning,” two English versions of the souling tradition that occurred on November 23 in Staffordshire and November 25 in Worcestershire, respectively. These customs, which fall very close to American Thanksgiving on the calendar, were described in a 1914 article by Charlotte Burne, who traced them back to the 17th century….

All of these traditions exist, to some extent, to redistribute wealth. In most communities at most times of year, but especially after harvest, in the days before modern conveniences like freezers, some people had more food than they could consume and others less than they needed. These traditions provide a socially sanctioned way for poorer people to get help and richer people to give help without either destroying the social order through revolution, or causing too much embarrassment to either side…

Come Christmas, you might just discover hefty similarities between caroling and masking/mumming. In fact, carolers were once known as Mummerers. Instead of the once traditional ragamuffin style, groups dressed in fine attire wishing good cheer to their neighbors in hopes of getting a gift in return. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” — its last verse, “Bring us some figgy pudding.”

Masking (not the COVID kind) needs to make a comeback, wouldn’t you say? We all have an aunt or two who deserves a simple fright.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Bain News Service Collection

Happy Raggamuffin, y’all!

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