When I was growing up, Thanksgiving dinner came with so much anticipation, we raced through the actual meal. Uncle Jack usually got tired of waiting and started eating before the official start signal was given, usually when the oldest member of the house sat down on one of great-grandfather's always unsteady dining room chairs. Platters and cut-glass bowls were sent around the table faster than the Preakness winner could make it to the finish line.
A telephone call or doorbell often disrupted the proceedings. One year the neighbors got in a loud fight and the sobbing wife appeared at our doorstep seeking protection. She called the police. They came into our house as well. I guess that's what holidays are all about.
One of the added dimensions of Thanksgiving was its role as the sounding bell for the start of the Christmas season. This was not at all the holiday's original focus, of course, but that's the way it worked out.
In the Baltimore of 35 years ago, Thanksgiving was the opening day of the Christmas-selling season. All the department stores were closed for the sacred harvest holiday, but that didn't mean their owners couldn't coax you into the mood of the coming season.
How ingenious and delightful these acts of persuasion were.
Somewhere between the last helping of peas, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, we Kelly kids would start discussing the hour. There would be a little, secretive discussion about whether Kathy Lenhard, a young girl who lived just down the block, would be freed of her family obligations so she could make the westward trot on 29th Street with us.
The reason for the Thanksgiving-afternoon outing was the Hochschild-Kohn department store's Toytown Parade. Its route went right through our neighborhood.
I guess this promenade was a knockoff of the Macy's spectacular in New York, which even in the 1950s was gaining national exposure through television.
No one possibly could have accused the Hochschild's version as being worthy of national television. It was, like so many things in Baltimore, a little worn, unpretentious and very charming. It had not one moment of glitz.
It wasn't hard to see there was a lot of homemade in this parade. The inflatables -- the rubber Raggedy Anns and other characters -- looked as if they had been used for target practice. Their patches had patches. Their colors were faded. They looked like storybook characters from the 1930s that had had air pumped into them Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving.
Even a child could figure out that many of the people who worked the parade were not professional carnies. They were the department-store employees who gave up their holiday to walk down Howard Street and wave to children.
This fact was underscored by Dorothy Croswell, the lady who lived next door to us on Guilford Avenue. Every Saturday morning at the stroke of 8:30 she walked through Hochschild's employees' entrance to keep her weekly hair appointment. She was not a store employee, but she had rights to an early arrival and gabbed with the staff of the department store's beauty salon. Her beautician, a woman named Muriel, did some of the makeup for the clowns and other personalities in the Toytown Parade. Dorothy acted as our source of intimate, behind-the-scenes details of the parade.
The parade itself lasted about a half-hour, maybe a little longer. Santa and Mrs. Claus always rode at the end. The streets were comfortably crowded. There was never a problem snagging all the view you wanted. And we usually had a big wicker baby carriage for any younger Kelly who wanted a seat off the chilly ground.
When the parade was over, we usually talked about how it had changed less than the menu for Thanksgiving dinner. But we'd have probably complained if it had been improved or altered in any way.
The day was far from over. The Toytown Parade was just the post-feast afternoon activity. By night, there was a push by the Kelly family members to get into the Rambler station wagon and head for Howard and Lexington streets and the show windows of the department stores there.
This was opening night for Christmas decorations and displays. In a good year, the window show could be better than anything on the stage of Ford's Theatre, then Baltimore's reigning playhouse.
Hutzler Brothers and Hochschild's battled for best windows. There were magically animated villages populated by dancing stuffed animals and elves. Mixed in somewhere was a laughing mechanical Santa (a horn blasted his "ho-ho-ho" across Lexington Street). And the Littlest Angel was also a big crowd-pleaser in pious Baltimore.
By 8:30 p.m. the effects of the salt in the sauerkraut and too much dressing had begun to set in. It was time for bed, time to rest, time for just one more little sliver of pumpkin pie.