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,! 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?


The Sweaty-Palm Factor

You must have seen the eye-popping item last week in Dick Eastman’s Genealogy Newsletter concerning the correspondent who had been doing genealogy for more than a decade – all online.

This kind of story seems to provoke two major reactions: (a) People use the Internet out of laziness and (b) People use the Internet when they’re too far from repositories and libraries. I’m not comfortable with either generalization.

From what I see, there’s no lack of energy in Internetland, to judge from the mailing lists and Ancestry forums humming with activity. Hours of honest effort are being expended online. The distance argument doesn’t hold up perfectly, either. As Dick Eastman pointed out in some detail, this is a tough break, but it can be overcome (microfilm lending, interlibrary loan, etc. etc.).

The problem isn’t online vs. offline. It’s search vs. research, as Marsha Hoffman Rising puts it so elegantly in her highly illuminating book The Family Tree Problem Solver.

Searching is throwing a name into the pot (a database, or a community message board, or a genealogy journal query section) and seeing what comes up. If you hit paydirt, great. If you don’t, you need a more detailed approach, including:

• Pinpointing the information you need,

• Identifying the places and people who can assist you,

• Talking or writing to them and convincing them to help you out.

In other words, research. Everyone starts with a search, but not everyone progresses to research. Why?

My radical thought: People hate to ask. When the salesperson in the shop says, “May I help you?” what’s the default answer? A quick “No thanks,” that’s what. Yes, some people are straightforward in stating what they need. But I think many more get sweaty palms at the thought of emailing a complete stranger to ask for a lookup.

Online searching is a comfort that way. The databases are so large, and they don’t need to be asked. And there’s always the chance of that paydirt. Funny thing is, the paydirt only leads to other questions, requiring the skill of asking – whether it’s in person or via an email or a phone call. It requires shoving aside pointless but crippling thoughts such as: Will they be annoyed? Will I sound stupid?

I wonder how many people never hit the Send button or pick up the phone, and stick to the safety (and frustrations) of the databases.

Links, 10.25.10

Quirky but useful; that’s the links for this week. We’ll lead off with something really, really useful.

Digital preservation demystified: Funny how much I love discussions about digitizing records at archives, but freeze up when it’s time to digitize my own stuff. Fortunately, via Dick Eastman comes a link to a lucid and detailed paper on personal archiving by Gary T. Wright. It takes the discussion to a manageable but still very specific level.

Not forgotten: Chicago reporter Donna Vickroy has a rather haunting article about the folks at Oak Forest Hospital who oversee the records for Cook County’s oldest recognized potter’s field. With more than 100,000 burials, it’s not surprising that this paupers’ cemetery is attracting a growing number of genealogy inquiries, some from as far away as the Netherlands. While the hospital archives do contain names and dates of burials, “”We always warn them to be aware that there are no tombstones or markers,” says public-affairs director Annette Carney.

Seeing the light: A good friend of mine has a recurring joke about difficult coworkers: “Should have been a lighthouse keeper.” Well, if your relatives really did work in lonely towers on rocky shores, Tampa Bay (Fla.) columnist Sharon Tate Moody considers the records you might search to learn more about them.

At sea: In another nautical note, Martin Rigby discusses the recent release by the British National Archives of the Royal Navy Medical Officers’ Journals. They provide vivid glimpses of life and death aboard royal ships between 1793 and 1880, including convict ships headed to Australia.

Nooooo! Not already!! Nothing against this reporter in Oklahoma, I’m sure she’s a very nice person, but is it really time to think about holiday gifts for the genealogist in your life? We couldn’t wait until October was finished? Apparently not. Anyway, there are some good basic suggestions here.

Verse for thought: Harold at Midwestern Microhistory wonders whether this Wallace Stevens poem isn’t about genealogy. Could be, in a melancholy way. He also had an informative post recently on what you can learn from census agricultural schedules.

I wish you all a lovely week. Even if you’re the sort who already finished the holiday shopping.

I Really Should Be Packing …

… But instead I’ll write a blog note saying I’m packing (at last) for a brief (but, I hope, illuminating) trip to New York’s Capital District to take pictures of cemeteries and churches, go cross-eyed at city directories and pore over state censuses.

And maybe even consume a lunchtime delicacy such as this if I am brave enough. Am I brave enough? I wonder.

I’ve been busy with preparations over the last couple of days,  but now that the address-taking and faxing and emailing and confirming of hours is done, it’s show time.

Off  to stomp around in my ancestors’ footsteps for a little bit. See you soon.

Links: 10.18.10

Yes, fall is in high gear; I can tell by how crunchy my driveway is due to falling acorns. Bad news for the rollerbladers in the family, great news for the squirrels. Let’s see what fell out of the trees this week, shall we?

Placing photos: For Mac users, here’s a clearly written tutorial on how to use the iPhoto “Places” functionality to tag photos with location maps, an organizational tool that can be useful to genealogists organizing their files. I do think it’s wise to think twice before posting/sharing location tags if they involve private residences, but for schools, churches and cemeteries it’s a great tool, built right into iPhoto ’09.

DNA tools: Last week, genetic genealogy firm GeneTree announced  two new services. The first is DNA Makeover, in which the firm will take results from outside labs, translate them into their own profile format and link up to database results to search for possible relatives. The other is Family Tree Diagnostic Service, a consulting option in which a staffer can review a family tree and suggest which of its members are the best candidates for DNA testing. I suspect you could read up on this topic and figure out for yourself whom to test, but for the time-strapped, it could be useful.

Kingly matters: I know, I know, genealogy is much, much more than figuring out how many presidents you’re related to. But the Discover magazine blog took an interesting tack on what elite DNA can tell us , since it often involves subtypes that are rare or previously undocumented.

Look it up: Colorado columnist Julie Miller reminds us that the right dictionary can save a genealogist from many a headache — and she includes a fantastic list of suggestions for everyone’s dictionary library — from medical terminology to nicknames.

Searchlight: Of interest to those researching in the Detroit metro area, according to Oakland County announced a new genealogy search function on its redesigned website. Currently records go back to 1941, but older records will be added over time, the county clerk says.

Virtual compatibility: Wrapping it up with the “awwww-factor,” there is a charming item out of Pittston, Pa., in which a local collector of Victoriana (and actress in historical re-enactments) became intrigued by a cemetery-photography website — an interest that eventually encompassed its owner, who was working on a book of 19th- and early 20th-century gravestone photographs. Romance blossomed via Facebook for the happy couple. All together now: Awwww.

Now go pick some apples. Or sweep up some acorns.

Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: The Webelos Did It

In which I address the question posed this week by Randy Seaver (via Brenda Joyce Jerome) at Saturday Night Genealogy Fun:

Who’s To Blame?


I blame the Cub Scouts. Specifically, the Webelos.

See, they had this family history merit badge (Actually, it’s a merit belt loop. A belt loop??? Boys are so weird!). Today it is called Cub Scout Heritages. I don’t know what they called it back when my big brother plopped the handbook down on the kitchen table and told my mother his troop was doing a family tree project.

There were questions on family heritage and tradition. And there was a family tree chart — the first I had ever seen. It even had spaces where you could paste pictures of your grandparents and great-grandparents. I was instantly riveted, but I would sooner have handed my brother the key to my leatherette Five-Year-Diary than to betray interest in his smelly old Cub Scout book.

So I hovered around, pretending to review my math homework, while my mother helped my brother fill in her side of the tree. She couldn’t remember all of her grandparents’ names, unsurprisingly, since my maternal grandfather was the sort of immigrant who left the Old World strictly in the past. But scanty as the information was, it was also familiar; I had heard the stories my grandmother told my mother about Germany and her girlhood. I eyed the other side of the tree, wondering what my father would have to say.

In due course, my father arrived home from his usual fun day at the dental practice, and the book was pushed across the table to him. He had a bit more to fill in — three of his own four grandparents, and a first name for his maternal grandmother. Dad’s father hadn’t been born in Brooklyn, where my father had grown up; no, he had come from upstate someplace. Dad thought that some of his family had fought in the Civil War.  They’d come to America because of the potato famine in Ireland.

I had never heard any of this. I had never heard my father discuss anything in the past that did not involve the Great Depression, World War II and how different his youth was from our own thoughtless, pampered existence. Much as I value those stories today, at the time they reduced me to resentful monosyllables and hasty retreats. This was fascinatingly different. I forgot to feign interest in my math homework. It wasn’t necessary, anyway, since my brother had already drifted away, leaving me the only audience. But the moment didn’t last long. Dinner was ready, and the book was cleared away.

In my mind’s eye, though, I could see the family tree, the lines filled in and the spaces still tantalizingly blank.

I thought: Someday I’ll fill that in.

I have no idea whether my brother got the badge (belt loop, whatever). I, on the other hand, got hooked.

Curses, you pesky Webelos!

Follow Friday:

Listen, I like just fine, but every once in a while I get a little bug-eyed at how much it just keeps growing and growing, merging  into everything that lies in its path. Some days it’s hard not to feel like Steve McQueen and friends confronting the Blob outside that funky 1950s movie theater.

I continue to poke and prod at Ancestry’s sprawling holdings — not only the obvious stuff like censuses, but at esoterica like the family histories, church histories and old society programs squirreled away in the card catalog. However, I freely admit there are days when the sheer volume of material (and quirky search engine) overwhelm me.

That’s when I’m grateful that it is still possible to find online repositories that are focused and personal labors of love, like ConnorsGenealogy.

This is a site maintained by California researcher Pat Connors, and once I get past that fact I honestly don’t know where to begin, there is such a variety of well-organized information here. On the home page, there are regular updates about what’s new and what’s coming up, a very good starting point.

If you are interested in Irish research, this is a great place to visit. There are photos and townland maps, arranged by county. There are also baptisms and marriage listings for Connors/O’Connors and various other surname interests of Pat’s, and even if you’re not related, you’d be surprised what might be in there. For instance, I don’t think I’m related to Pat, but because there happens to be a Troy, N.Y. section to the site, I stumbled across a date for my great-great-grandfather’s declaration of intent.

But even without that, I’d love this site for its wealth of general information about Ireland, its surname registries and the energy that bounces through the entire endeavor. Sites like this have the real-person touch that can help a beginner chart a path that takes them beyond the index-searching stage. Which is where we all need to go, sooner or later.