How well I remember Thanksgiving in mid-20th century Baltimore.
We lived on Biltmore Avenue, a shady, almost bucolic street about a mile northwest of Pimlico. After breakfast my parents would load us four kids into an old Buick Roadmaster and head down Park Heights toward Charles Street (the Jones Falls Expressway wasn’t completed until 1990), and look for a parking space in the vicinity of Howard and Lexington.
Sometimes we’d bring folding lawn chairs, but usually we’d just stand. The weather was often blustery, and it wasn’t long before our cheeks were rosy, lips chapped and fingers beginning to freeze beneath cotton mittens. We didn’t notice; our attention was fully focused on the largest balloon figures we’d ever seen and the clowns scattering wrapped candies into the crowd lining the streets.
Originally called the Toytown Parade, the spectacle was first staged in 1936 by the Hochschild Kohn department store to kick off the holiday season. The store sponsored the event for the next 30 years. Its employees used home vacuum cleaners to inflate the balloon figures, which included a 50-foot rubber whale, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Superman and Santa Claus.
After the parade, we knew exactly where we were headed: to dinner at Grandma Annie’s. She lived with her sister in a large and solid brownstone rowhouse on Callow Avenue. Once there, we went straight to the old-fashioned kitchen, with its equally antiquated cast-iron stove, drawn by the sweet warm scents wafting from the large turkey being roasted therein.
Turkey of course was de rigueur, but to Baltimoreans of German and Eastern European descent, (fully a quarter of the city’s populace back then), sweet sauerkraut with meat has long been a required central dish on Thanksgiving, and it certainly was at ours.
Maryland did not adopt what was first considered just a New England holiday until 1842, when Gov. Francis Thomas proclaimed that a state-sanctioned day of “thanksgiving, praise, and prayer” would occur on Dec. 14, 1842. (President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.)
Though the state’s earliest celebrations centered on religious contemplation, it didn’t take long before the focus was on food. Local produce such as corn, beans and squash had shaped the diet of the region’s Native-American tribes, which were later combined with the traditional fare of both European settlers and enslaved African Americans.
Nowadays, a Maryland Thanksgiving would not be complete without some form of sweet potatoes on the table. Ours were served in a dark brown syrup. Dessert consisted of a choice of three pies (apple, cherry, pumpkin) and, for the kids, giant multicolored lollipops.
After dinner we went into the living room, sepia-toned and filled with heavy-fabric arm chairs, a couch, a love-seat and, most important to us, a small black-and-white television with a little 12-inch round screen. Of course, we were mesmerized. That was our first glimpse of Howdy Doody and his sidekicks: Buffalo Bob, Clarabelle, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, and (my favorite) Phineas T. Bluster.
There are other Thanksgiving events that we’ve attended over the years. Among them are the long-standing football rivalry games: City vs. Poly, first played on Thanksgiving Day in 1889, and Loyola vs. Calvert Hall, begun in 1919.
I remember colorful Maryland fox hunts, too, preceded by the blessing of the hounds. For more than 100 years, fox hunting clubs of Maryland have come to countryside churches for an Episcopal blessing on Thanksgiving Day, and modern times have seen the custom grow beyond a dedicated few in dark leather boots, white breeches, red coats, and black hunters’ caps. One of the oldest of them still occurs at the Saint James Episcopal Church in Monkton, where generations of spectators have gathered annually for decades to watch riders and hounds observe the old English tradition.
After the pageantry, huntsmen and hounds would set off across the nearby countryside, crossing streams and jumping fences on property whose owners freely grant permission. In practice this is less hunting than horsemanship. The hounds follow the fox, which usually outruns them. The riders stampede after the hounds, and in short order call them off. There are no rifles, and no dead foxes. Some prefer to call the sport “fox chasing.”
There are some 160 fox hunting clubs around the country. Most of them do their benedictions in September and October, but Maryland choosing this day of thanks. The blessings are intoned solemnly, and often with a smile:
“Keep, O Lord, this day bright, the horses sure of foot, the hounds swift, the fox elusive, the hunters safe. And may all come safely to their homes.”
Kenneth Lasson (email@example.com) is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.