Here’s food for thought while you’re stuffing your face today: Thanksgiving wasn’t always the socially sanctioned-holiday for sedentary gluttony, but a trickster’s masquerade through the streets, full of costumes and pranks.
They called it “Thanksgiving Masking.”
The masking started, it seems, in the mid-19th century—an outgrowth of “mumming,” the centuries-old tradition in which costumed men went from door to door, asking for food and/or money. (Sometimes, but not always, the men would play music in exchange for the stuff.)
“There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits.”
By the end of the 19th century, the process had evolved to look downright Halloween-y.People would don masks—especially popular: parrots and other birds and animals—and parade around town. Boys would wear girls’ clothing, “tog[ging] themselves out in worn-out finery of their sisters” and spending the day “gamboling in awkward mimicry of their sisters to the casual street piano.”
People also got more, um, creative with their costumes. “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 Los Angeles Times noted in 1897. “There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits,” The New York Times reported in 1899. Some people wore masks that made fun of people of other nations “with greatly exaggerated facial peculiarities.”
Though especially popular in New York, other cities took part in Thanksgiving masking, too. Newspapers of the time described elaborate masquerade balls held in places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Montesano, Washington. As one syndicated column, tracked downby NPR’s Linton Weeks, put it: “Thousands of folks ran rampant. Horns and rattles are worked overtime. The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime.”
Not that I don’t fully endorse today’s hedonistic, sprawling feasts for kings, but it would be awesome if we engaged in a modern day chivari of our own on this day of thanks, bringing our pots and pans out of the kitchen and into the streets.