Happy Thanksgiving! In this post, we’ll take a look at a set of interesting photos from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. They depict a custom most people nowadays don’t know much about: Thanksgiving masking. Thanksgiving maskers, like trick-or-treaters on contemporary Halloween, used to go door to door, begging for handouts. They also had other ritual begging activities, including a “Ragamuffin Parade” and a “scramble for pennies” in the streets. References to many of these iterations of the custom were dug up by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence, for this blog post in Teaching with the Library of Congress.
This set of photos from the Library of Congress also tends to circulate at other blogs and magazines around the holidays, sometimes with interesting discussions. Unfortunately, most of the commentary added by modern journalists falls into the trap of reading the photos anachronistically, interpreting photos from the past only through the lens of the present. At the American Folklife Center, we are more likely to apply principles of historical ethnography or ethnographic history, to try to find out how people understood such practices at the time. This would lead our interpretations to differ from those we find in popular articles.
For example, the journalistic accounts seem concerned with value judgments, as when the photos and the custom they depict are called “weird” by Linton Weeks of NPR, or “almost perverse” by Greg Young in the Huffington Post. The Daily News called the masking tradition “bizarre” twice…in a two-sentence story! Obviously, these adjectives don’t tell us anything about the custom itself. It might seem bizarre and weird to contemporary people because we no longer do it, but at the time it was well-understood and expected. Adults were often exasperated by it, and sometimes they disapproved, as we can see by some of the articles found by Tom Bober. But they didn’t say it was weird, bizarre, or perverse.
To discuss a more specific anachronism, Weeks claimed that by dressing up at Thanksgiving and going door to door looking for treats, the people in these photos “effectively created a mash-up of Halloween and Turkey Day.” This idea could only occur to someone looking back at these pictures from a later time, for the simple reason that Thanksgiving masking predates trick-or-treating in the United States. When these pictures were taken, kids did play in the streets and play tricks on Halloween night, and adults held masquerade balls, but 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.
In the important article “Trick or Treat: Pre-Texts and Contexts,” which appeared in this edited volume by Jack Santino, folklorist Tad Tuleja dates American trick-or-treating to the 1930s, and points out that even in the 1940s articles about Halloween traditions do not mention it, suggesting it did not become truly widespread until later. By contrast, articles in the 19th century already mention Thanksgiving masking as an old and widespread tradition. An 1897 article from Chicago states, for example:
Thanksgiving time is the busiest season of the year for the manufacturers of and dealers in masks and false faces. The fantastical costume parades, and the old custom of masking and dressing up for amusement 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.
Clearly, the NPR article has it backward: in 1910, people weren’t “jumbling” Halloween and Turkey Day. They were doing activities that were not then associated with Halloween. If anyone, it was the Americans of the 1930s who “created a mashup” when they began trick-or-treating, importing a tradition already known as a Thanksgiving staple into the celebration of All Hallows.
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 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. For this reason, Tuleja makes a convincing argument that Thanksgiving masking is the immediate source of the trick-or-treat tradition.
This doesn’t mean we have to disavow old-world roots. Tuleja refers to Thanksgiving masking as a “missing link” between European traditions and American Halloween. He still mentions souling, Guy Fawkes day, and other possible old-world antecedents to the Thanksgiving masking tradition.
I’d like to suggest two such antecedents Tuleja doesn’t mention: “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.
Although I’m happy to suggest the idea that the late November traditions of Clementing and Catterning may have contributed to Thanksgiving masking and thus to trick-or-treat, I also agree with Tuleja that seeking a single old-world origin is probably a fool’s errand. Traditions like trick-or-treating occur at most holidays somewhere in Europe. These traditions are often called “ritualized begging” by scholars, because one group asks another for money, food, or drink. Sometimes the group asking for a handout performs before doing so, as in souling, Christmas caroling, Guy Fawkes night, and Christmas mumming. Cajun Mardi Gras, described by Barry Jean Ancelet in this lecture, is another example of a European American tradition in which costumed visitors sing a song and demand food. In several regions of France, similar traditions also occurred at Easter, where money or eggs were given in exchange for songs like the one at this link.
Tuleja also identifies many other traditions that bear similarities to these:
The Christmas guisers of southern Poland, the traditional ‘false-face’ beggars of the Swiss Alps, German soul cakers, the schnorers of Central European Jewish tradition, British mummers and hobby horse impersonators, Irish straw boys — all of these European “masked ritual solicitors ” structurally resemble contemporary trick or treaters. Any one of them might have lent a brushstroke to the tableau of the Halloween ritual in North America.
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. Burne suggests that the souling tradition moved from Halloween to late November and became Clementing and Catterning in areas where economic activity shifted and more people worked at urban trades rather than farming. In those areas, cash replaced in-kind payments, harvest products needed to be converted to cash before payments could be made, and thus the time when debts customarily came due, which is also the ideal time for wealth redistribution, occurred somewhat later in the year. (Read more about another example in Pat Mire’s article about Cajun Mardi Gras.)
Nevertheless, in many of these traditions, there is an implied threat. In the carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” singers demand figgy pudding and state “we won’t go until we get some.” A traditional British or Irish mummer’s play character wields a broom and yells “money I want and money I crave, if you don’t give me money I’ll sweep you all to the grave.” This threatening tone can also be seen in some descriptions of Thanksgiving masking, and of course in the “trick” part of “trick or treat.”
What this all shows is that there were numerous similar old-world traditions that the first Thanksgiving maskers might have drawn on when they came up with the idea to go out begging. We can’t even be sure the idea didn’t occur independently to more than one group of kids, each of them drawing on ethnic traditions of more than one member. After all, each year, traditions like this are adapted and recreated anew, and it would be wrong to assume each new element has a single origin. This year, for example, has seen the widespread emergence of commercial coronavirus Halloween costumes, as well as vernacular counterparts, not to mention solutions for socially distanced candy delivery, including long candy chutes and even catapults to throw the candy long distances. We can’t assume that each of these ideas was thought up just once and that everyone else copied an “original”; it’s very plausible that many people thought of it independently. In the same way, there’s no way to know whether Thanksgiving masking was created once, or more than once, let alone to know what cultural resources each group of creators brought to their creation. Some may have had Irish grandparents, others Polish or Jewish, and all these traditions might have played a role.
Once the American autumn masking tradition started, it was communally recreated by successive groups of children, year after year, both before and after it moved from Thanksgiving to Halloween. This has brought ample opportunity for all of Tuleja’s possible antecedents to contribute to the tradition. Trick-or-treat has been influenced by non-European cultures too, most notably Mexican and Mesoamerican cultures whose Día de Muertos is adjacent to (and related to) Halloween; you can’t go trick or treating these days without encountering sugar skull and Catrina makeup based on Mexican traditions. African and Asian American cultures have also lent touches to local and regional versions of the trick-or-treat tradition.
Which brings me to another important anachronism in journalistic accounts: the claim made the in the title of the Atlantic article by Megan Garber, that “Thanksgiving Used to Look a Lot Like Halloween, Except More Racist.” In making this declaration, Garber focuses on the existence of black masks in some of the 1901 photos, and on one sentence in the 1897 article, which describes masks that depict “faces characteristic of every nation of this earth–with greatly exaggerated facial peculiarities.” This, of course, does prove that Thanksgiving masking was sometimes racist. But it can only claim to show that it’s “more racist” than Halloween by making the unfair comparison of Thanksgivings in 1897 and 1910 with Halloween in 2020. Garber is not really comparing Thanksgiving and Halloween, she’s comparing 2020 with 1910. At best, this confuses the issue of how the two holidays might stack up against each other. At worst, it whitewashes Halloween, which has a long history of equally racist costumes. It’s a history that, as Michael Harriot points out, isn’t even really behind us yet. It’s certainly something that confronts us in these photos.
One reason to highlight these photos at this time of year is, of course, that we have passed Halloween and are almost at Thanksgiving. But it’s also to point out the common roots these holiday traditions have with Christmas mumming. We have a tradition of Christmas mumming here at the American Folklife Center, which you can read about here.
So let this blog be a warning: despite the pandemic, we are contemplating ways to do our play while maintaining social distance. Soon, you’re likely to see a new play text and maybe even a recording of a 2020 mummers’ play. Until then, happy holidays!