The Thanksgiving of the Fantasticals A Day of Rule breaking, and Spontaneous Mirth

When we used to do Thanksgiving as cross-dressing and insulting authority:

Thanksgiving was a Northeastern regional commemoration until Abraham Lincoln promulgated it as a national holiday in 1863, and it was celebrated in lots of different ways. One of those ways was for young men to dress up as women or in fantastic costumes and promenade, and mug, and make fun of authority. It was a “masculine escape” from the family, an opportunity to break rules and be outlandish. In our increasingly regimented national security state, we could do with some of that old Thanksgiving cheekiness, though we need both sexes now.

Thanksgiving in the nineteenth century in some parts of the country was a combination of Eddie Izzard (cross-dressing), Lady Gaga (wild costumes and breaking conventions), and Jon Stewart (mirthful insults directed at high political authority). Some historians suggest that the homey, nuclear-family Thanksgiving meal was a reaction against all this public rowdiness. Alas, so successful a reaction that the carnivale side of the holiday has been erased from public memory (Elizabeth Pleck, “The making of the domestic occasion: The history of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History (Summer 1999) Vol. 32, Iss. 4; pg. 773, 17 pgs).

Pleck writes,

‘As William Dean Howells put it, “The poor recognize [Thanksgiving] as a sort of carnival,” a masculine escape from the family, a day of rule breaking, and spontaneous mirth . . . Drunken men and boys, often masked, paraded from house to house and demanded to be treated. Boys misbehaved and men committed physical assaults on Thanksgiving as well as on Christmas.”

(Well, that last part we don’t miss)

She continues,

“Groups of men, crossdressing, who called themselves the Fantastics or Fantasticals, masqueraded on Thanksgiving beginning in the 1780s. . . Subsequently the Fantastics copied these and other elements of English mumming, such as drunkenness and ridiculing authority . . . An editorial in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1870 defended the Fantastics, on the grounds that “it is better to be merry than sad, and if, as some genial writer asserts, a good hearty laugh takes a nail out of your coffin, a parade of the fantasticals can not fail to lessen the bills of mortality.” ‘

William Shepard Walsh, “Curiosities of popular customs and of rites, ceremonies, observances,” Social Science (1897), p. 924 wrote as the Fantasticals were fading from public memory:

Another and somewhat strange way of observing the holiday in New York has been, up to very recent years, to dress one’s self in the most fantastic costume imaginable and parade the streets. . . Hundreds of companies of these motley persons, under some such name as the ” Square Back Rangers,” the ” Slenderfoot Army,” or the ” Original Hounds,” and dressed chiefly, as an old account says, as “clowns, Yankees, Irishmen, kings, washerwomen, and courtiers,” thronged the streets all day. These “ragamuffin parades” have fallen into disuse except for a few small boys, but as recently as 1885 they were in full swing, as the following paragraph, printed in the Sun on November 27, 1885, testifies:

” Fantastic processions burst out all over the town in unusual abundance and filled the popular eye with a panorama that looked like a crazy-quilt show grown crazy and filled the popular ear with the din of thumping drums and blaring trumpets. Thirty-six companies of fantastics had permits to march around making an uproar, and they did it with great success. Local statesmen went around.with the down-town paraders and helped them whoop things up. There were lots and lots of fantastics who hadn’t any permit, and who didn’t care either. They were the thousands and thousands of small boys who put on their sisters’ old dresses, smeared paint on their faces, pulled on red, yellow, brown, black, and indiscriminate wigs, and pranced round their own particular streets, without the least fear of police interference.’

So, as we sit, pants unbuttoned and droopy-lidded, around the flat screen television watching other people work off their calories, we could get an inkling of past Americana if we imagined uncle Joe dressed up in one of Madonna’s wilder costumes and making an obscene gesture in the general direction of the state capitol.

If only present-day Americans were not so apathetic and timid that they gave up the most basic rights enshrined in our Constitution almost without a fight just because Dick Cheney sneered at them and muttered something about national security — if only they showed some spunk and dared break social conventions and get uppity in the cause of personal liberty rather than that of corporate perquisites from time to time– now that would be something to be thankful for.

End/ (Not Continued)

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Responses | Print |

13 Responses

  1. I dunno. I think we 21st centurions tend to nostalgize the 18th and 19th century cultures of riot, charivari and the carnivalesque. Public drunkenness and cross-dressing was about as political then as the Gay Pride march is today. It was just class based rather than sexual minority based. And that's not nuthin', but a ritualized expression of grievance, esp. when married to public drunkenness, is not a real threat.

    Most of all, this wasn't specific to Thanksgiving. It was also part of Christmas, Fourth of July, Battalion Day and George Washington's birthday. It was the lower class pride march of a more clearly class conscious society. To get it back, you'd have to bring back more the naked forms of enforced deference that they were rebelling against and which are now gone.

    On the other hand, Thanksgiving is all about nostalgia, so why shouldn't us lefties have our kind? :-)

    Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good night.

  2. Prof Cole ~ You start my day two plus years now, never off topic ~ now where's that jesters cap & bells at………..a slug of ezra brooks maybe too, yes?

  3. Be careful Juan, with an informed and not-obedient-to-Dick-Cheney blog such as yours, Glenn Beck's head might explode, and that would be very, very "bad" indeed, or something to be thankful for.

  4. "How about if we have a real old fashioned Thanksgiving this year, Dear?"

    "That's sounds great!"

  5. Dear Dr. Cole:
    You say: "If only present-day Americans were not so apathetic and timid that they gave up the most basic rights enshrined in our Constitution almost without a fight just because Dick Cheney sneered at them and muttered something about national security — if only they showed some spunk and dared break social conventions and get uppity in the cause of personal liberty rather than that of corporate perquisites from time to time– now that would be something to be thankful for."

    I say:I would be thankful if journalists would honor themselves by publicly asking politicians to confirm or deny that Israel has many atomic bombs.
    The avoidance of such question is the greatest travesty of journalist ethics in the USA.

  6. The fellow I transcribe news and commentary for had the 'pleasure' of being one of the few "white people" to assist in the occupation of Alcatraz island.

    He spoke of 'Thanksgiving' and what it means to him:

    November 24 2009 Travus T. Hipp Morning News & Commentary: Reflections On The Genocide Committed By European Settlers On The Native Americans… And The 'Dinner Date' That Came Later
    link to

    For more about the occupation see here: link to

    What came after?

    See this post about AIM's Leonard Peltier… Now the longest held parolable inmate in the federal prison system because his plight "For all intents and purposes began with the Pan-Tribal occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay"
    link to

    It's notable that the genocide on US natives continues to this day. One of the most recent and glaring examples in the news was the forcible clearing of a grove of cactus the Lipan Apache depend on for food at the US MEXICAN border, for the pork barrel-ridden 'border wall'.

    Also, the Tonhono Oodham Navaho… desert dwellers in the SW US Sonoran desert have describe US border enforcement tactics in terms that could only imply harassment with intent to commit cultural annihilation.

  7. Actually I remember our maid's brother coming to our door, drunk with a wig and lipstick on in a dress asking my mother for treats…and my mother told me it was a French Canadian celebration "Tire Ste Catherine and that families made "tire Ste Catherine" which is pulled taffy. She said that it involved the whole family, feasting and drinking and making taffy in the kitchen and men would get drunk and dress up in womans clothes and visit neighbours etc for more drinks and treats. This was in about 1945 in Quebec, Canada.

  8. Sounds a lot like Halloween. Did people simply move the celebration to October 31 after Thanksgiving became respectable?

  9. That's really interesting!

    It almost kind of sounds like Trick or Treating. I wonder when Halloween really become a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps when Thanksgiving was altered in the public consciousness then we looked for some alternate outlet?

  10. Thank you for the enlightenment regarding the history of this particular holiday. You are spot on Professor Cole, especially in your closing paragraph.

  11. I think what used to happen at Thanksgiving migrated to Holloween.

  12. Greetings!
    A fine last paragraph about something long gone from American shores, not to return ever since the US has turned into the Land of Those Who Think They're Free, and Home of the Milqutoasts!

  13. Sounds like Turkey Day was the original "Gays Who are Usually in the Closet" holiday!!

Comments are closed.