Ah, the pleasures of the traditional Thanksgiving--the turkey, the cranberries, the cross-dressing, the begging, the disrupting of Broadway shows . . .
Wait a minute. Cross-dressing? Disrupting Broadway shows? When did these activities become part of the traditional Thanksgiving experience?
Shortly after the American Revolution, says Elizabeth Pleck, professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of the forthcoming book "Celebrating the Family," which traces the history of American holidays. "Rowdiness was a part of the celebration," says Pleck. "There was a lot of drunken male behavior related to holiday times. We're not used to thinking of that in association with Thanksgiving, which has been purged of that sort of thing."
Indeed, Thanksgiving is a sedate domestic holiday these days, a cozy celebration of family and food. In rural New England, where it originated three centuries ago, Thanksgiving was traditionally a quiet day--a morning church service followed by a family feast.
But there's another, more raucous Thanksgiving tradition. From the Revolution through the early days of this century, working-class men in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere celebrated the holiday by parading through the streets, sometimes in blackface or in drag, sometimes clad in costumes that parodied prominent rich people. Which was, in fact, the same way they celebrated many other holidays, including Christmas and the Fourth of July.
"Getting up in women's clothing was a standard part of a lot of festive occasions," Pleck says. "They were making fun of gender conventions. It was part of saying, 'We're flouting all the conventions here. We're making fun of everything.' "
These parades were an American variation on an ancient European theme--the charivari, or the "world-turned-upside-down celebration," says Josh Brown, director of the American Social History Project at the City University of New York. "Doing that stuff on Thanksgiving," Brown says, "was to some extent thumbing your nose at the propertied."
In New York, the parades were known as "Fantastics" and they got quite elaborate. In the late 1800s, immigrant Irish Catholic policemen and politicians joined the fun. In those days, Catholics regarded the standard Thanksgiving as a Protestant holiday, Pleck says, so they felt free to celebrate their own way, which included the Fantastics.
"These were real processions, with some men on horseback and men in carts and men in drag," she says. "They would march through New York and they would end up in the park, where there would be a rowdy, drunken picnic."
Even then, traditional American family values prevailed, and these rowdy men were joined in their holiday bacchanal by their wives, who catered the drunken picnics, and by their children, who dressed in rags and masks and followed behind the Fantastics with their own "Ragamuffin Parade," blowing horns and begging coins from spectators.
"Once the parade ended, they'd go to the homes of the rich and go begging," Pleck says. "They'd do a performance of some kind and they'd expect to get food and coins. If they didn't, they'd respond with some sort of disorderly act--defacing property or overturning the outhouse."
The sons of the rich observed this revelry with a hint of envy. It seemed like a lot more fun than a morning church service followed by an afternoon of roast turkey with Mom and Dad and maiden Aunt Edna. So they created their own variety of Thanksgiving rowdiness. It began in the 1870s and revolved around college football.
In those days, the final game of the collegiate season was held on Thanksgiving and the Ivy League championship was played at the Polo Grounds in New York. Hordes of college lads descended on Manhattan to drink, cheer their teams on, and then celebrate (or drown their sorrows) by drinking some more. After that, they'd head for the Broadway shows, where they exhibited their lusty affection for the showgirls by throwing stuff at the stage.
"There would be a musical number and they'd start shouting and throwing things and breaking things," Pleck says, "and the managers of these theaters would call the police."
Ah, life sure was fun in those days!
But all good things come to an end. In the 1890s--a period of labor unrest and social upheaval--the middle class lost its tolerance for street rowdiness. Ministers denounced football as a desecration of the national feast day. In 1894 the Ivy League presidents, embarrassed at the behavior of their students, shifted the season-ending game to the Saturday before Thanksgiving and moved it back to campus.
Meanwhile, the New York Times was denouncing the Fantastics parade as a "public nuisance" and attacking the tradition of begging as a "malicious influence on the morals of children."
The killjoys carried the day. Gradually, the Fantastics died out and the begging metamorphosed into Halloween's far tamer custom of trick-or-treating. In 1924, Macy's created its own Thanksgiving Day parade but, of course, the emphasis was not on revelry and social mockery but on commercialism--kicking off the sacred holiday buying season.
"These days, people go to the Thanksgiving day parade to watch," says Brown. "In the 19th century, the notion of a parade was to participate."
Today, Thanksgiving has been thoroughly domesticated--in both senses of that word. It's a completely homebound family holiday--"a celebration," Pleck says, "of the ideal of the family, of family affection and nurturance and homecoming."
Which is a wonderful thing to celebrate, of course. But it doesn't leave much room for the traditional Thanksgiving pleasures--cross-dressing, begging and the disruption of Broadway shows.