Thanksgiving [Newspaper Article]
Thanksgiving was not uniformly celebrated until major efforts to nationalize it were undertaken late in the nineteenth century. Despite Lincoln's proclamation that made Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War, few Americans celebrated the holiday like middle-class Protestants in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states did. Southerners refused to recognize the "Yankee holiday," Catholics opposed it on religious grounds, and the poor couldn't afford a turkey. African-Americans went to church on Thanksgiving and men in rural Pennsylvania and New York City masqueraded at parades and parties until the late 1800s.
At the dawn of the 20th century, hordes of poor children dressed up in costumes, begged for money or treats, and pulled pranks (e.g., soaped windows or pilfered shop signs) on penny pinching urban denizens on Thanksgiving. Their so-called "ragamuffin parade" had its origins in the European traditions of carnival that was transported and transplanted by immigrants in the decades before Thanksgiving became a sedate family holiday.
Progressive-era reformers, school superintendents, and the police disapproved of the children's cultural practice. Also chagrined by the "pernicious custom" that undermined family bonds and national identity, was the group of upstanding church and charitable men who urged New Yorkers in 1911 not to nurture blackmailing and begging. The cultural authority of these urban leaders led pubic school teachers and settlement house workers to require students to write festive poems, perform plays, and draw pictures of turkeys, pumpkins, and Pilgrims.
The goal of the school presentations and projects on American history and culture was to instill a national identity and civil religion in children. In turn, patriotic children were expected to instruct their immigrant parents in dominant American customs and values.
"Don't Give to Mummers," New York Times, November 29, 1911. Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.
Primary Source Text
DON’T GIVE TO MUMMERS
Charity Workers Advise Us Not to Yield to Thanksgiving Beggars
To the Public:
Thanksgiving Day is an American institution–one of the few which we have originated and which has become really National. Its primary associations are religious and serious. The strengthening of family ties and the building up of character are among its natural purposes. Good cheer and hospitality rather than a reckless carnival spirit have always been its distinguishing characteristics.
Here in New York City, however, we are in danger of falling into a custom which is inconsistent with the whole spirit of Thanksgiving and a strange perversion of its highest purposes. This is the habit of giving pennies and larger coin to children who put on fantastic clothing and in this disguise impudently ask every passerby for money. Surely it needs no argument to show that to teach young children to become beggars is no right use of our National Day of prayer and thanksgiving.
There are many excellent citizens who thoughtlessly respond to these appeals because they think they are giving innocent pleasure to their neighbors’ children as perhaps their neighbors are similarly giving to their own. There are no doubt many innocent children who can take part in such pranks with no great harm, because on other days in the year they are under proper discipline, and quickly forget the impressions made on them by what they consider a new kind of game. But reflection will convince any good citizen that for a large proportion of those to whom they give money it is a dangerous game. Often such impressions do not pass away from the mind of the child–especially if they are renewed and deepened on each succeeding Thanksgiving Day.
In the interest of our children and in the interest of a national observance of this holiday, we appeal to parents to restrain their children from this foolish and mischievous use of the day, and to citizens to refrain from encouraging this pernicious custom.
ROBERT W. DE FOREST,
President Charity Organization Society.
R. FULTON CUTTING,
President New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.
President United Hebrew Charities
WILLIAM CHURCH OSBORN,
President Children’s Aid Society.
DAVID H. GREER,
Bishop of the Diocese of New York
Supervisor of Catholic Charities
FRANK MASON NORTH
Chairman Commission on Church and Social Service
How to Cite This Source
"Thanksgiving [Newspaper Article]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #336, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/336 (accessed September 2, 2014).