Published in The East Hampton Star
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 had been a tradition in many parts of the New York metropolitan area since the 1920s and 1930s and perhaps even earlier.
According to the Web site [Now Defunct], the custom might be related to St. Martin Day, “which was widely practiced in both Western and some Eastern European countries.” The Web site, which was based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and which solicited people to submit their “Anything f’ Thanksgiv’n” recollections, went on to say 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 have sent in their memories. Begging on Thanksgiving wasn’t done by all the children in these communities. Some streets and sections of neighborhoods did not observe the custom at all.
We never went trick-or-treating for Halloween, nor did we wear costumes; they were worn only on Thanksgiving. Each Thanksgiving, my cousin, Buddy, who was two years older than me and my closest friend, would dress for begging. We rummaged through our parents’ closets in early November, looking for the right, worn-out baggy pants and threadbare sweaters or jackets to wear. Then we’d climb up to the closet shelves and pick out hats. Our fathers wore fedoras in those days, and our moms and our grandmother wore hats to church. So the pickings were pretty good.
“It’s too big for you,” I told Buddy, as a hat he selected fell down over his eyes. We looked in the mirror and laughed. So he found a smaller one, or rolled a kerchief around his head to hold the large hat in place when he put it back on. I found a plain lady’s hat with a brim because the fussy, flowery, veiled ones looked silly. Certainly they weren’t hobo-ish.
“What d’ya think?” Buddy said, smiling wide to show me the teeth he had blackened out.
“I think you’ll scare everybody and they won’t give us any money,” I told him, reaching for a large, soft handbag of my mother’s to carry on our rounds. Buddy found a sack in his mother’s pantry that he mounted on a long stick. He would use that to carry his “loot,” as the adults called it.
We were the same height and even looked alike when we were young. Fair-skinned and freckled, we could have been twins and, in fact, Buddy and I were often asked if that’s what we were. Sometimes we nodded yes, but usually we were honest and said we were just cousins.
Off we’d go to beg, after our moms applied burnt wine cork to our faces for a more realistic “bum” look. “Be back by noon!” our moms said. “You’ll need to wash up and get ready for your dinner.” Thanksgiving dinner was served around 1 o’clock.
The turkeys were already roasting in the family ovens when we left the house, filled with bread stuffing. Potatoes were peeled and sitting in the pot, waiting to be boiled and turned into yummy mashed potatoes. Turnips, carrots, creamed spinach, and other side dishes were being prepared, upstairs and down, with jellied cranberry sauce and Parker rolls from the A&P ready to be buttered.
All this, plus fresh pies and cookies, were set upon the still-undecorated, Formica-topped kitchen tables. For Thanksgiving, our families used real tablecloths, made of white linen or cotton, that were neatly ironed, instead of a bare table or a plastic cover.
Buddy and I were both shy, but we got braver as we went along, knocking on doors and ringing bells. “Anything f’ Thanksgiv’n?” was our joint cry when someone came to the door. Other kids went in groups; sometimes they’d sing songs while begging. Buddy and I chose to go on our own.
Sometimes we were greeted with a smile and handed coins or candies or even a piece of fruit. Other times the man or woman who opened the door would just scowl at us. Maybe they’d give us a coin or two, but now and then they just said, “Sorry, kids. Not today.” Or they’d look at us as if we really were hoboes and get this look of disgust on their faces before closing the door on us.
We walked much farther than our nearby streets as we got older, past Central Avenue, all the way to Myrtle Avenue, Glendale’s main thoroughfare, to beg at the one and two-family houses between Myrtle and Cooper Avenues.
Sometimes, a man would come out from one of the taverns on the avenue, all flushed-looking, but smiling. “Here, kids,” he’d say. “Now don’t you look cute.” And he’d hand us a quarter each. Other people in the tavern, which smelled strongly of beer and whiskey even way out on the sidewalk, would laugh and clap their hands. Then they’d all return to their drinking, and the man would wave us off and go back inside.
Occasionally, Buddy and I were frightened by the people who opened the doors or who came out of the bar and grills. They were angry or drunk and didn’t want to have anything to do with us. At a house once, a big, ugly guy said to us, “Get out of here, you goddamned little hooligans.”
He looked as if he might have been sleeping, or drinking, or both. I clutched Buddy’s arm and tried not to wet my pants. Since Buddy was the older one, my parents always expected him to take care of me. We ran, fast, away from that house. Usually, there were other Glendale kids begging nearby, so we would run over quickly to join them.
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 save this money to buy Christmas presents.
“Pretty good, huh?” I said to Buddy, counting out about two dollars worth of coins, and stacking up the candies and fruit.
“Not bad. Maybe we should’ve hit some more bars.”
“See ya later,” I said, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
We smiled, then went inside the warm house to our families and to the aroma of turkey both upstairs and down. We had just enough time to get washed and change into normal clothes, so we could sit down with our families for the Thanksgiving feast.