I just learned that there was a custom in the US of dressing up in costumes on Thanksgiving. This practice seems to have been popular in some areas of the country from the 19th century until the early 1950s. This solves a mystery about a photo of my grandparents, labeled “Masquerading as Popeye – Thanksgiving 1939”. It always seemed a bit bizarre to me that adults would be dressing up as cartoon characters on Thanksgiving – a strange day for a masquerade party.
Apparently this custom started in early America with “mumming”, when costumed men would go door to door asking for food hand outs (the men sometimes played musical instruments, à la Philadelphia’s Mummers). This led somehow to “Thanksgiving masking”, when children would dress up and roam their neighborhood asking “Anything for Thanksgiving?” in hopes of getting candy, fruit, or a spare coin. Similar in many ways to Halloween trick-or-treating, the Thanksgiving tradition seems to have focused more on children dressing as poor hobos in need of free food, but often the outfits included masks, veils, and cross-gender dressing. And it seems that adults got in on the act too in 1939, even dressing up as a popular cartoon character!
- Happy Thanksgiving Masking: The pleasures of mischief, featureless masks, and cross-dressing children! Blog post on thebowerboys.blogspot.com, 2011.
- When Thanksgiving was Weird Blog post on npr.org, 2014.
- Photos on flickr.com of Thanksgiving Maskers from Library of Congress, Bain News Service collection, from ca. 1910 to ca. 1915.