Children brought up in Brooklyn before the First World War remember Thanksgiving Day as a day when children wore costumes and penny masks and asked for candy. Francie wears “a yellow Chinaman [mask] with sleazy rope mandarin mustache.” Neeley wears “a chalk-white death head with grinning black teeth.” He combines this mask with one of Katie’s discarded dresses, cut off at the ankle so that he can walk. Francie wears one of Katie’s “yellow waists, a bright blue skirt and a red sash.” When they get outside, the street is jammed with costumed children. Some shopkeepers lock their doors so as not to have to give the children anything other than a lecture about begging. Others, such as the green grocer, oblige by giving them “decaying apples and half-rotted apples.” By noon, it is all over and Francie and Neeley go home to a Thanksgiving dinner of pot roast and homemade noodles. They listen to stories of how Johnny went around on Thanksgiving as a boy.
Despite the poverty of the neighborhood, holidays offer bright moments. Though Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November in a proclamation issued in 1863, it is likely that some communities continued the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving when they chose to. In Francie’s neighborhood, Thanksgiving and Halloween occur on the same day. This might be a way for the community to conserve resources, for families can use the rotting produce and add them to Thanksgiving meals. Francie’s “Chinaman” costume reminds us, too, of how common and acceptable it was at this time to wear non-white identities as costumes.
It’s around Thanksgiving time that Francie tells her first “organized lie” and realizes that she wants to be a writer. In her class, four chosen girls recite a Thanksgiving poem and hold a symbol from the day. The fourth holds a four-cent pumpkin pie that is the size of a saucer. After the exercises, the teacher asks if anyone wants the pumpkin pie. Everyone eyes the pie hungrily. They’re poor children but too proud to accept the charity. Francie’s teacher orders the pie to be thrown away. Just then, Francie says that she will give it to a poor family she knows. Her teacher commends her for her Thanksgiving spirit. On the way home, Francie eats the pie.
Francie lies because she and the other poor children are too proud to accept charity. If she were to accept the pie for herself, the other children might have accused her of being a beggar. Francie can neither stand to see good food wasted nor can she subject herself to the disapproval of her peers. She tells a story to get what she wants without compromising herself.
On Monday morning, Francie’s teacher asks her how the poor family liked the gift of the pie. Francie confirms that they liked it. Seeing that her teacher is interested in hearing more, Francie embellishes her lie. She describes how the little girls have “golden curls and big blue eyes” and she gives them names. She says that, if it weren’t for the pie, the girls would have starved. The teacher notes how the pie was very small to save two lives.
Francie’s teacher knows that the story is untrue, but she’s interested in hearing how elaborate Francie can make her tale. Francie has a particular habit of creating families in her stories. Her tendency to do this may be a way to feel better about the unhappiness and dysfunction in her own household.
Francie finally admits that it is all a lie and that she ate the pie. Francie begs her teacher not to send a letter home. Her teacher assures her that she will not punish Francie for having an imagination. She then instructs her on the difference between a lie and a story. A lie is something that someone tells out of cowardice. A story is something you make up based on your sense of how things ought to be. She encourages Francie to tell things how they happen but to write things how she thinks they should have happened. Thus, at ten, Francie finds an outlet in writing. This practice helps Francie distinguish between truth and fiction. If not for writing, Francie may have grown up to be “a tremendous liar.”
Francie is worried about her teacher sending a letter home because she doesn’t want the school to find out that she faked her address to be able to enroll there. She worries about the implications of that lie while her teacher instructs her on the difference between a lie and a story. Francie’s teacher perceives her tale about the poor family as a “story” because she suspects that Francie comes from a family that is not much different from the one she made up.