Ragamuffin Day: The Precursor To Halloween

Kids dressed in crazy costumes going door to door begging for treats — it sounds a lot like Halloween, right? It could be, except for a few notable differences, like the fact that it took place on Thanksgiving morning. It’s the long-forgotten “Ragamuffin Day” — a tradition among the Irish immigrants of New York City that was popular before Halloween’s trick-or-treating started. Ragamuffin Day was born shortly after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. Young kids suddenly found themselves with a rare weekday off from school, and of course, they decided to use that time for good-natured mischief. Groups of school-aged children, particularly Irish immigrants of New York City, wore costumes and went from house to house, begging strangers for treats. The children wore old and torn clothing as costumes, which gave the tradition its name. The ragamuffin children collected fruits, baked goods, vegetables, and even pennies and small trinkets from the houses they visited. When Ragamuffin Day was in full swing in the 1870s, children began expanding their costumes, painting their faces or wearing penny masks. Eventually, a market for commercially made costumes was born. Beginning in the 1930s, a series of articles ran in The New York Times calling for an end to Ragamuffin Day. These articles cited safety concerns as well as the well-known fact that children are annoying. By the 1940s, the idea of dressing up and begging for treats was resurrected and incorporated into another holiday: Halloween.