Of Trick or Treaters and Ragamuffins
by John Delach
Halloween has grown to be a significant American celebration. Outdoor Halloween decorations, lights, ghosts, gremlins, witches and more sinister exhibits mimicking zombies, werewolves and vampires decorate suburban front lawns. October 31 is second only to Christmas for outdoor displays, lights and decorations and the Halloween experience extends well beyond giving out candy, carved jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples and costume parties.
Trick or treating toddlers wearing popular comic book, TV and movie character costumes go door to door shepherded by protective parents monitoring their safety in this potentially dangerous world. But after bedtime brings about their departure, the night gives way to curious, semi-occult costume parties featuring outfits and devices that once upon a time were considered occult or demonic.
I just don’t get what Halloween has become and find its celebration of lights and decorations to be bizarre. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Halloween celebrates death and the forces of satan. It is the antithesis of the Christian feasts of All Saints Day celebrated on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2 that honor and pray for the dead. I grew up Roman Catholic during the 1950s, the era of Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Fulton Sheen when the good nuns of the Dominican Order, who treated Halloween akin to the black plague, ruled our lives at St. Aloysius grammar school.
In that era, Halloween was a day and night of mischief. By day, the bullies who took to the streets armed with socks full of ashes (we burned coal back then) or pieces of chalk broken apart under the wheels of buses or trucks. They descended on the rest of us in wolf packs to mark us wherever they could strike our bodies. Our only defense; run like hell to get home and hope other victims were slower.
Halloween night was for the hooligans. Older boys created controlled mayhem, but breaking into stores and homes was off limits. If they crossed that line, the local precinct cop made their life miserable. He knew his beat and how to find them. They knew if they went too far, they had no place to run, no place to hide.
So they limited their bad behavior to rude yet acceptable limits; knocking free the front gates and hosting them up utility poles, destroying the metal garbage cans left outside by forgetful landlords, egging parked cars or just getting drunk. Real destruction of personal or real property was out of the question.
In Ridgewood, Queens where I grew up, our time for begging was Thanksgiving morning and it was called Ragamuffin Day. I was reminded of this by a recent piece in the Metropolitan Section of The New York Times on Sunday, October 23. Writing for the FYI Column, Tammy La Gorce reported that this odd practice began in 1870 after Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a holiday. “Basically, kids would go around, probably while their parents were creating the holiday meal, knocking on their neighbor’s doors and saying, ‘Anything for Thanksgiving?’ They were beggars. That’s why they were called ragamuffins. Pennies and apples and pieces of candy were the most common responses.”
It was mostly associated with New York City and continued until about 1950 when early television made it apparent that most of the country had switched to Halloween for trick or treating.
That is almost my recollection. I do remember going out on Thanksgiving mornings dressing as a cowboy while other kids dressed as superman, sailors (especially girls) and tougher kids as hobos. But I recall one big difference from the Thanksgiving scene that Ms La Gorce described: Substitute “women” for “parents” as to who was creating the holiday meal.
But where was the old man, in the local tavern getting an early start on the day. So that is where we kids came to realize where we should go to make our score.
It was a delicate balancing act. We had to get there early before other kids ruined it, but not too early. The goal; be the first in when the fathers were feeling generous and before other little snots became a pain in the ass. If we hit one saloon just right, that was a good day; two, a cornucopia of riches and once we struck out in a couple of gin mills, it was time to call it a day and wait for next year.