The Ghost of Thanksgiving’s Past A Fun Bite of Confectionery and Cultural History

by Austin Johnson October 23, 2015

Imagine this.

You’re preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The table is set, the turkey is roasting and the wine glasses are waiting to be filled. Aromas of cinnamon spice and savory dishes are wafting through every nook and cranny of your home, and you’re ready for the arrival of friends and family any minute. The doorbell rings through the halls and instead of discovering much anticipated faces, you’re greeted by none other than children adorned in destitution-inspired garb and eerie masks, asking for treats.

It’s a little too late for Halloween, isn’t it? Well this perplexing sight was actually the norm on Thanksgiving Day at the turn-of-the-20th century.


Photo Credit: NPR

Believe it or not, Thanksgiving used to be a staple candy holiday. Much like the way in which youngsters migrate from door-to-door begging for confections on the modern All Hallows’ Eve, early Thanksgiving traditions involved trickery, wacky costumes and complementing candy sales.

It was known as “Ragamuffin Day.” This particular ancestor of Halloween was most popular in New York City, and it dates back to about 1870 (according to The Atlantic, it was a product of earlier “mumming,” in which homeless men dressed in costumes moved from door-to-door playing music and begging for food and money). Instead of sounding a chorus of “Trick-or-Treat!” at front doors, the ragamuffins would ask, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” and receive pennies, fruit or candy.

The act of ragamuffins donning a deformed mask resembling animals or current political leaders and parading around the neighborhood was referred to as Thanksgiving “masking,” and the old candy companies sure didn’t mind. They made certain that they were completely available as well, placing confections such as spiced jelly gums, opera drops, crystallized ginger and tinted hard candies right next to the popular masks that were sold in stores. In 1899, a New York Times article noted that everyone participating “was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.” Adults threw confetti and flour into the air around children. It was an odd and yet familiar scene.


Photo Credit: The Atlantic

Ragamuffin Day was a lucrative time for retail confectioners of the era, but it didn't last for very long. The zany celebrations began dwindling and evolving around 1930. The downfall of the short-lived Ragamuffin Day on Thanksgiving was a choice made mainly by authority figures and the factor of convenience; a N.Y. superintendent of schools wrote that “many citizens complain that on Thanksgiving Day they are annoyed by children dressed as ragamuffins, who beg for money and gifts,” according to the New York Public Library. Basically, people didn’t want to be bothered with handing out treats while they were simultaneously preparing to entertain guests.

For better or for worse, our cultural history has shaped Thanksgiving into a holiday that no longer highlights candy as a critical component of the celebration, and all of that candy hype and mayhem was eventually funneled into our modern mega-holiday of Halloween on October 31.

However most people can agree that confections are a star of many celebrations and a luxury to be shared on special holidays. It’s been attempted to recreate the confection craze of Ragamuffin Day on Thanksgiving – there are a couple of rare Thanksgiving-themed candies from the '70s and '80s out there.

And of course, Tap even has its own collection of fall-themed confectioner packaging that makes the most out of the season. If it’s a time of celebration, it’s a time of sharing what we enjoy. Ragamuffin Day probably can’t be resurrected from the book of holidays past, but on this upcoming eating marathon would you object to a little bit of celebratory Thanksgiving candy?

Austin Johnson
Austin Johnson