Thanksgiving always takes me back to my childhood in Brooklyn, when we started off the Christmas season with that spectacular event known to us as The Macy’s Day Parade. It was always freezing, standing out there for a couple of hours watching those towering balloons sidle lazily down the avenue, one after the other, drawn by what looked like thousands of Lilliputians. In high winds, the likes of Mighty Mouse, Joe Palooka or Felix the Cat (names I haven’t heard now in half a century) would perilously drift sideways, almost to the windows of the office buildings, straining at their tethers as their handlers struggled to maintain control. We gasped, wide-eyed, and sometimes even wished these lovable characters would break free altogether and soar higher and higher into the gray November sky. It was wonderful.
After the parade, we headed a couple of blocks away to my favorite restaurant in the whole world, the Horn and Hardart Automat (I was only a kid, remember–Brooklyn was my whole world). For those who never visited an Automat, picture a long wall covered in little brass-framed glass doors. My father would give us a handful of nickels (nickels, mind you) and we would go to whichever windows contained the food we wanted. You put in the correct number of coins, the little door popped open, and you took out your food. As soon as you turned away, a hand would reach in from behind and refill the window. (I guess you could say this was the elegant, personalized precursor to the vending machine.) My favorite foods at the Automat were the pea soup and the grilled cheese sandwich, four nickels each. Nothing ever tasted so good after we’d been out in the cold, well, maybe the chocolate cream pie…three nickels.
Next, we headed back out on our way to Macy’s, stopping at one of the sidewalk stands selling roasted chestnuts, something you just couldn’t pass up. You couldn’t pass up Macy’s either. Macy’s Herald Square, an enormous property that takes up one entire city block in Manhattan, was a child’s dream-come-true at Christmas time, when the entire seventh floor was toys, with a petting zoo thrown in, to boot. One year, we bought a tiny gray rubber mouse with a nearly invisible string tied to it, which we brought home to scare the life out of my poor mother by stealthily pulling it across the kitchen table. But we also bought her something else, a little sheer lavender bag tied with a satin ribbon and filled with dried leaves that smelled nice. That was the first time I had ever heard the word sachet. We gave my mother the sachet to help her get over the mouse.
On the way back to the subway, we stopped at the big corner window of Gimbel’s Department Store. In the window was a miniature rooftop and chimney. Every fifteen minutes or so, Santa came up through the chimney, laughing and waving, as all the kids watched expectantly with our noses nearly pressed against the glass. We wouldn’t miss this for the world, but we always got home in time for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner either at our house or one of my aunt’s.
Some years when we didn’t go to the parade, we did something that I have come to realize was a bit odd. In Brooklyn on Halloween we didn’t dress up the way they do today to go trick or treating. We just did harmless mischief, such as filling a sock with chalk powder and smacking each other with it. We stuck pins in door bells so that they would ring incessantly. We chalked front stoops and doors. On Thanksgiving morning, however, we dressed up as hobos and went door to door asking, “Alms for Thanksgiving?” and people would hand us a penny or two. I’m not sure where that tradition came from, most probably from the very eclectic melting pot of European cultures that made up our Brooklyn neighborhoods in those days.
As I look back, there’s another tradition that I thought was odd. For some reason, Thanksgiving was a day when all the great gorilla movies were shown on television–“King Kong,” “Son of Kong,” “Mighty Joe Young.” I loved it, although I can’t imagine where that got its start. The finale of the day was a dramatic switch, “Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street,” which marked the official start of the Christmas season.
An important part of my holiday memories is that my mother never got stressed out. The stressed-out part must be a phenomenon of a more recent generation, even though it’s a wonder no one pulled their hair out back then, considering that it usually took a couple of hours by train to get where we needed to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas, often in frigid, snowy weather. Nothing deterred us. Whoever traveled carried a cake box—it’s what New Yorkers do. And, of course, a Macy’s shopping bag filled with all the wrapped presents. No one complained and, magically, even for those of us with two-bedroom homes, everybody stayed over. I have no idea where a dozen or so of us slept because I was the kid who usually fell asleep first after midnight Mass.
I would wake up the next morning on the floor by the Christmas tree, wrapped snugly in a quilt, and find that there was already a ham in the oven and fresh jelly doughnuts on the table. Those times have passed away and, sadly, so have nearly all those wonderful relatives. But here we are today with warm, sweet memories and the great sense of love that still represents the true spirit of Christmas.