When Thanksgiving was Weird

Thanksgiving maskers, circa 1910–1915.

Thanksgiving shows up in American Popular Culture in a variety of ways.

The First Thanksgiving

When you think about Thanksgiving in the United States, I am guessing you envision the turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie traditions that can be loosely associated with the 1621 Pilgrim and Wampanog feast in Plymouth, MA prompted by a bountiful harvest after a treacherous winter aboard the Mayflower (although the harvest celebration did not become an annual tradition until the 1660s).

Or is it the crusade led by Sarah Josepha Hale for a national day of Thanksgiving? Maybe the formal Thanksgiving declarations of Abraham Lincoln or FDR?

Perhaps you think about the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special that first aired in 1973 — Charlie Brown specials were such an important part of my childhood!

In case you didn’t know . . . today is Charles Schultz’s (Peanuts Creator) birthday. He would have been 92 years young. And . . . coincidentally . . . A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving will air for the 41st time this evening.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is simple — his most trying problems being another failed attempt to actually kick the football (Oh, that Lucy!) and having two places to be on Thanksgiving day (Two places . . . two dinners — what’s wrong with that?). When Charlie Brown scrambles to prepare a dinner for his pals, Snoopy dons his Pilgrim garb and serves up a feast of buttered toast, pretzel sticks, popcorn, jelly beans, and vanilla ice cream — with whipped cream and a cherry on top — Saving the traditional fare for he and Woodstock to devour on their own.

And . . . who thinks of Thanksgiving without thinking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

So . . . what is it that I don’t know about Thanksgiving?

As a Social Studies teacher for the last 14 years and a student of history for far, far longer, I have to admit to a degree of historical hubris recently brought to light in a timely article by NPR’s The Protojournalist. Sometimes we are too quick to assume we know everything worth knowing about a topic, especially a topic as popular as the origins of Thanksgiving.

Enter When Thanksgiving was Weird.

A colleague brought this article to the table on Monday and, after a quick read, we were both just a touch discontented that we would not see our American Popular Culture classes again until after Thanksgiving.

It seems that turn-of-the-20th century Thanksgiving WAS weird — more reminiscent of our modern day Halloween. And it seems that I knew nothing about it! Hmmm…

At this time in history, Thanksgiving was more about masquerades, merriment, and mischief— more about confetti and flinging flour than family, feasts, and football. From the masks to the parade . . . from the ancient tradition of mumming to the zany cross-dressers to the ragamuffin asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” — I am intrigued.

Although this sounds fantastic, the traditions were met with great societal disapproval. According to Greg Young of the Huffington Post,

“This custom was mostly frowned upon by polite society as a distraction from the historic and somber traditions of Thanksgiving. Sidling up to a dinner table wearing costume makeup or an oversized gown was certainly no way to pay tribute to American providence.”

This objection allowed for ragamuffin parades to be replaced by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a new symbol of the American Thanksgiving and a way to usher in the Christmas season a few short days earlier. Thus, masquerading, merriment, and mischief backed up, relocated to Halloween, and became popularized as the ritual we have come to know as Trick-or-Treat.

In the end, I have learned something new. Maybe you have learned something too.

The more you know . . .

More importantly . . . I have stumbled upon an excellent lesson plan for next Thanksgiving!

Literacy Lovers — take a minute to really digest the primary sources ripe for analysis:

New-York tribune., November 29, 1901

New York City News Paper, 1911

The Free Lance — Dec 2, 1911

Appleton’s Magazine, Vol 10

New-York tribune., November 23, 1919

The evening world., November 21, 1921

Library of Congress Photo Collection

Library of Congress Thanksgiving Images

And the secondary sources:

NPR: When Thanksgiving Was Weird

Thanksgiving Maskers

Bowery Boys Blog

Huffington Post: A Forgotten Thanksgiving Custom: Masks, Mischief and Cross-dressing

The New York Public Library Blog

Little Talks to Little People

I have so many questions to ask. . . So many connections to make! I hope my students will too!

Happy Thanksgiving!