Sentimental Sunday: ‘Anything f’ Thanksgiving?’

For years, I really thought I’d hallucinated this conversation, which took place when I was around ten or eleven.

My mother, frazzled from outfitting the five of us seven kids currently eligible for trick-or-treating, broke off from adjusting someone’s mask to say how sick she was of the whole thing. “And besides — we never trick or treated on Halloween. We did it on Thanksgiving.”

This remark was promptly filed in the Things Your Parents Say Just To Annoy You folder, and forgotten. In college and beyond, I would think of it sometimes when October rolled around — when I wasn’t pondering how to treat Halloween-party aftereffects. (Never mix beer and M&Ms, is what I’m saying.)

But eventually I did realize I wasn’t hallucinating my parents, and in fact, they often said interesting things. So I went looking for a rational  explanation for the” trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving” memory. Nobody (but nobody) west of the Hudson had ever heard of such a custom, and even some of my (South) Brooklyn relatives looked at me funny, so I concluded it had to be specific to Mom’s section of Brooklyn — Greenpoint.

As it turns out, that’s fairly accurate. Also as it turns out, in 1998 a wonderful person named Frank Dmuchowski compiled a whole webpage about this custom on his site, Greenpoint.com! I love the Internet!

Well, on Thanksgiving morning, the children of Greenpoint would get dressed up in costumes and go from house to house yelling, “Anything f’ Thanksgiv’n?”. In return, and if they were lucky, they would be rewarded with coins, or a piece of fruit, or a piece of candy. In New York, this custom appears to go back to the 1920’s and 1930’s and perhaps earlier.  Apparently in those days it was called, “Ragamuffin Day” and was practiced the day before Thanksgiving.

Mr. Dmuchowski’s page includes quote after quote of memories from former Greenpointers who went about on Thanksgiving, dressed in old clothes and asking for treats. The custom even rated a mention in the all-time classic novel of Brooklyn, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In the book, plucky heroine Francie Nolan and her brother Neely brave the November chill to go door-to-door, rewarded by a hot meal of pot roast and noodles when they get back home. (The Nolans live in Williamsburg, next door to Greenpoint, so it’s all good).

Apparently there were other pockets of “ragamuffins” outside of Brooklyn — Mr. Dmuchowski’s correspondents remembered it in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in parts of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and even New Jersey. But it was a very localized custom. “Not only was it neighborhood specific, but it was block specific,” as one man recalled. “If you went west of Steinway Street, the residents had you committed to a nuthouse saying, ‘Come back at Halloween, you idiot.’ “

Why Thanksgiving? Why not Valentine’s Day? Some of Mr. Dmuchowski’s correspondents believe the custom is related to the Feast of St. Martin (Nov. 11), which is observed in many eastern and western European countries with parades of costumed children who receive little gifts of cakes and sweets. Perhaps European immigrants held on to this tradition, and smushed it together with their adopted country’s feast of Thanksgiving. It began fading out after World War II, although many kids kept it up well into the 1950s.

I really mean it when I say I love the Internet. Other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I’ve never seen a mention in print that this custom ever existed. So Frank Dmuchowski and his co-preservationists have saved ‘Anything f’ Thanksgiving’ from oblivion.

Thanks, guys.

Note: Stay safe out there, kids. And drivers, slow DOWN! Mr. Archaeologist, himself a blogger on actuarial matters, notes that Halloween may well be our most dangerous celebration after New Year’s. Let’s all have fun and come home in one piece, OK?

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15 Comments on “Sentimental Sunday: ‘Anything f’ Thanksgiving?’”

  1. von bargen says:

    Thanks for this. Like some of you, I too couldn’t find anyone, even other transplanted New Yorkers, who could remember doing this. Hallowe’en was when you wore old clothes and brought chalk to school to “Hallowe’en” everbody. Sometimes we used a stocking full of flour for maximum effect. (I lived in SouthOzonePark)

  2. Lola says:

    Lola Q-H Queens 40’s-50’s
    Back in the day, the people of Long Island City, were thankful for all that we had and felt blessed. On Thanksgiving morning, the children dressed up in costumes to honor the people that they admired. No Hobos Allowed! My younger brother dressed up as a policeman. I dressed up as a fine lady, like my mother, so did my twin sister. One would say “Anything for Thanksgiving”? as you rang the door bell. Then we were greeted, an given coins, fruit or treats. We thanked them for their generosity. The coins that we collected went into small church-shaped boxes, which we handed in at Sunday school, for charities. The treats and fruit we could keep or share with others that came to our door, to show our thankfulness to God for all our many blessings that we had received from him.

  3. Judy says:

    Anything for Thanksgivin. Absolutely, We lived on 162nd Street in the Bronx in a 10 story building and we would dress up and go into the alleys and beg. People would throw pennies out of their windows. Some would wrap the pennies in bits of newspaper so they didn’t bounce all over the place. We also, filled socks with flour and tried to hit each other. My dad filled a long stocking, the kind young girls wore to school so I wouldn’t have to come back and refill it.
    Okay, now does anyone remember mello rolls ice cream? A cylinder shaped ice cream wrapped in a heavy paper. The trick was to unwrap the ice cream and put it in a rectangular topped cylinder bottom cone. When we moved to NJ I never went out “begging” again, but my brother took a pillow case and since he was the fasted kid on two legs, the whole family had enough treats to last until Christmas. We did have FUN!

  4. JOHN RAPHEL says:

    HALLELUJAH! I REACHED THE POINT WHERE I BELIEVED I HAD REACHED SENILITY WE LIVED ON THE CUSP BETWEEN GREENPOINT AND WILLIAMSBURG IN THE 1930’S. IT WAS MOSTLY AN ITALIAN NEIGHBORHOOD. ON HALLOWEEN WE WOULD FILL WOMENS’ OLD STOCKINGS WITH FLOUR AND HIT EACH OTHER WITH THEM.. LOTS OF FUN. ON THANKSGIVING WO WOULD TOUR THE STORES AND HOMES ASKING ” ANYTHING FOR THANKSGIVING?”

    • John, this thread is just one of my absolute favorites because of the way it jogs people’s memories of a really unique custom! My mother (grew up in Greenpoint in the 1930s) used to talk about the old stockings full of flour, too — although she didn’t like them much; she said they could hurt like heck. Whaddya gonna do …

  5. Joe says:

    Grew up in the Heights section of Jersey City and remember going out every Thanksgiving morning until we moved away in 1959…….everyone thinks I’m nuts when I mention the tradition!

  6. RAYMOND BRZOZOWSKI says:

    My sister and I went around with Anything for Thanksgiving. I remember one year it started snowing. We went arond every Thanksging in the early 1950’s.

  7. Cathie O'Mack says:

    I was born in 1942 & raised in Redhook, Brooklyn when Redhook wasn’t so bad. My sister & I use to dress up in old, old clothes on Thanksgiving & knock on doors & say, Anything for Thanksgiving? We went home with nuts, candy, cookies, fruit, coins (we liked the coins), etc.
    Then when I was 12 years old, we moved to Levittown (Nassau county). The kids there dressed in costumes & went trick or treating on Halloween.Very different for us city folks!
    The night before Halloween was called Mischief Night & the neighborhood kids did some crazy things to people’s property. I’m glad to see that other people remember “BEGGING”. Thanks for the nice memories!

    Cathie

  8. Joe Flood says:

    I’ve been laughed at by friends when I told them of the “Anything for Thanksgiving” story, but yes I did it too. Mostly in Ridgewood Queens/Brooklyn (post office had us in Bklyn and the phone co. had us in Queens.) My ancestry is Irish and on one of my trips to Ireland I dicovered a museum in the West of Ireland which had pictures of boys with burnt cork on their faces dressed like Ragamuffins begging for a Penny for to bury the Wren….It was done on St. Stephens Day Dec.26th. I think there is a strong connection….
    Google the Wren Boys and you will see what I’m talking about…
    Merry Christmas
    Joe Flood

  9. LilacFestival says:

    Well, I just mentioned this to my mother-in-law (in her mid-80s), who grew up in Union County, NJ, but remembered witnessing this Thanksgiving eve tradition when she was 7 or 8 years old and she visited her Irish relatives in the Bronx (near the original NYU, in University Heights). She recalled the “Anything for Thanksgivin'” line.

  10. @Susan: Glad you found it interesting. It’s a great example of something from Brooklyn’s melting-pot past, which is all but vanished now. Greenpoint is a hipster destination now, I hear :)

    @Greta: I’ll be interested to know what your in-laws remember. My dad grew up in Park Slope, and I don’t think he went out on Thanksgiving!

  11. Greta Koehl says:

    I had never heard of this, and now I’m curious, too. I’ll have to ask my in-laws (who are from Brooklyn) whether they did anything like this when they were young. Thanks for an interesting post!

  12. Susan says:

    Completely fascinating! I’ve long studied regional customs but never considered urban locations as a source of such customs. Makes me wish I had urban ancestors. Great job.


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