This is taken from an essay that was published in The East Hampton Star in November 2007 and is part of my “Cousin Buddy” series of memoirs. The longer version can be seen on my website: www.eileenobser.com under Read My Work. I’d love to hear from readers who shared this Thanksgiving custom in other parts of the country.
When I was growing up in Glendale, Queens in the 1950s, it was the custom for young children to dress up, usually as hoboes, on Thanksgiving mornings, and go door-to-door in our neighborhood and beg: “Anything f’Thanksgiv’n?” This was a tradition in parts of the New York metropolitan area since the 1920s and 1930s and perhaps even earlier.
According to a Greenpoint, Brooklyn website (gone now, in 2013), the custom may be related to St. Martin Day, “which was widely practiced in both western and some eastern European countries.” The website invited people to submit their “Anything f’Thanksgiv’n” recollections, stating that “there is very little or no written history of this unique Thanksgiving custom.”
People from Astoria, Jamaica, St. Albans, Ridgewood, Cypress Hills, the Bronx, Jersey City, and especially old-time residents of Greenpoint, sent in their memories. Begging on Thanksgiving was neighborhood specific and, in some cases, block specific.
In Glendale, we never went trick or treating for Halloween, nor did we wear costumes; they were only worn on Thanksgiving. My cousin, Buddy, and I would dress for begging, rummaging through our parents’ closets looking for the right, worn out baggy pants and threadbare jackets. Then we’d pick out hats. I carried an old handbag while Buddy held a stick with a bag on the end for our loot. Our moms applied burnt wine cork to our faces for a more realistic hobo look. “Be back by noon!” we were told. Thanksgiving dinner was served around one o’clock. The turkeys were already roasting in the family ovens, upstairs and down.
“Anything f’ Thanksgiv’n?” Buddy and I were usually greeted with a smile and handed pennies, candies, walnuts, or even an apple or orange. Sometimes we even got nickels.
We walked much farther as we got older, past Central Avenue, all the way beyond Myrtle Avenue, Glendale’s main thoroughfare, to beg at the one and two-family houses in that area. Sometimes, a man would come out from one of the saloons on the avenue. “Here, kids,” he’d say. “Now don’t you look cute!” And he’d hand us a dime each, maybe even a quarter. Other people in the tavern, which smelled strongly of beer and whiskey even way out on the sidewalk, would laugh and clap their hands. The man would wave us off and go back inside.
Finally, when we had enough of walking and of begging, we’d head slowly back to our house. We might have been out close to three hours. At home, we’d sit on the front stoop, if it wasn’t too cold, and spread our loot out on the steps. We had agreed to save this money to buy Christmas presents.
After hugging each other, we went inside the warm house to our families and to the aroma of turkey and homemade fruit pies. We had just enough time to get cleaned up so we could sit down with our families for the Thanksgiving feast.
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This year, I’m grateful for many things, including the fact that my memoir, Only You, will be published by Oak Tree Press in January. See the Book page on my website for some details.
A very Happy Thanksgiving to you all!