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On Nov. 20, 2000, a haymaker of a winter storm dumped almost 25 inches of snow on Western New York, shutting down businesses, schools and roads just three days before Thanksgiving.

The City of Buffalo didn't lift its driving ban until Nov. 22, a Wednesday, when abandoned vehicles still clogged many streets and piles of snow lined the sidewalks.

But thousands of people defied the weather that night and trooped downtown for Buffalo's pre-Thanksgiving party. They stuffed into the bars of Chippewa Street to continue what is now as much a holiday tradition as the Turkey Trot.

"I do remember saying to myself, "This is amazing,'" said Steve Joseph, Buffalo Place marketing manager and a Thanksgiving Eve veteran. "I remember standing on top of snow piles trying to get into bars."

The night before Thanksgiving is an annual rite in Western New York, a festive evening that is part holiday celebration, high-school reunion and all-night happy hour.

It's a tradition that goes back as far as many area natives and bar owners can remember, at least to the early 1970s. Radio stations promote the hell out of it, television stations do live-stand-ups from Chippewa and at least one bar gives away frozen turkeys to its patrons throughout the night.

"It's kind of like "Old Home Days.' Everybody knows everybody else will be out," said Steve Calvaneso, a Buffalo businessman and restaurateur who owns Bacchus, City Grill, Calvaneso's Cosmopolitan Grille and Ya Ya Bayou Brew-house.

"It's crazy. Pandemonium.'

It's a Buffalo phenomenon, and particularly a downtown phenomenon, where crowds of party-seekers line up outside the most popular bars and stand elbow to elbow inside.

Their ranks are swelled by college kids back home for the fall break and former Western New Yorkers returning home to see old friends and old haunts.

And with the Thanksgiving holiday, the most anyone has to worry about that night is avoiding tryptophan poisoning during dinner the next day.

"It's crazy. Pandemonium. There's people everywhere. It's the busiest, the liveliest, downtown is all year," said Mark Benzin, who lives in Buffalo and was celebrating the end of another work week last Friday in the SoHo Bar on Chippewa.

The action centers on Chippewa Street. That night, thousands of young people descend on the downtown bar strip. Shrugging off the bitter cold, leaving their coats in their cars, they line up outside the hottest bars and squeeze inside at the discretion of menacing bouncers.

"Crazy. Half a million people in downtown Buffalo," said Kelly Galiotto, a bank manager from Hamburg, with the exaggeration normally seen in Allentown Art Festival crowd counts. "It's something to experience, even if you're not a bar person."

If you're young and single, you stay until the 4 a.m. closing time, then hit Pano's or Towne restaurant for a quick bite before heading home to crash.

"You sleep after you eat" on Thanksgiving, said Galiotto's pal, Melissa Kaufman, who lives in Depew and provides loan support at a bank.

Even Bassam Elghaziri, a native of Lebanon who now lives in Kenmore, got pulled into the tradition because of his wife, Vera, who grew up here.

"My wife, she has this habit. It's a special day for her," Elghaziri, an HSBC bank worker, said last week. "It's a very nice atmosphere. I feel like everybody knows each other."

Emily Dixon, a property manager from Angola, said she used to go out every year on Thanksgiving Eve "in my younger years." The 34-year-old still likes the mood that night.

"People just out for a good time, just to hang out and relax before the stressful holiday season," Dixon said as she tucked into SoHo's happy hour buffet last week.

You have to prepare yourself to go out on Chippewa that night, with the lines outside and the crowds inside, said Kristi Sokol of West Seneca, who works at a downtown hotel.

"You have to be in the mode that you're going to be bumped, you're going to be sweated on," Sokol said.

Free turkeys

Bar owners say it's one of their best nights of the year, right up there with New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and Halloween. It doubles the crowd on a typical Saturday night for the Crocodile Bar, said owner Jim Alfieri.

"It's busy. It's one of the nights when you don't have to advertise," said Alfieri, also the president of the Chippewa Entertainment District Association.

Alfieri said people have been going out the night before Thanksgiving since 1971, when he first got into the business.

Crocodile gives out 10-pound frozen turkeys every half-hour, all night long, he said. The bar holds onto the turkeys for the winners until they go home.

"They use it for Christmas," Alfieri said.

And Level nightclub on Chippewa is bringing in some high-powered entertainment for a "Thanksgiving Eve Party" - Cameran and Brad, two of the stars of the MTV reality show "The Real World: San Diego."

KISS 98.5 FM urges people to go out that night, sending their DJ's to bars in the area to do live call-ins on the air throughout the night, said Dave Universal, program director at the radio station. This year they'll hit seven bars total, he said.

"That's what everybody does. They go out drinking all night," Universal said. "You've got to be out that night. It's a culture that's developed."

Even the Sabres try to get in on the act, at least those years when they actually play hockey. The team always asks the National Hockey League to schedule games in Buffalo the night before and after Thanksgiving, to take advantage of the crowds of ex-Western New Yorkers flocking home, said Michael Gilbert, Sabres spokesman.

"Those games traditionally have done very well" in attendance, Gilbert said.

This year, the Spot Coffee at Delaware Avenue and Chippewa is starting its new, extended weekend hours on Thanksgiving Eve. This Spot location will now be open all night Friday and Saturday, to pick up the late-night bar spillover, said manager Tom Walters.

"We're launching it that night because of the bar scene that night," he said.

Restaurants say they get a good dinner crowd that night too, far better than the usual Wednesday night, but not as good as Valentine's Day or Mother's Day for them.

"They don't want to cook the night before. The restaurants do well because everyone wants to give Mom a break," Calvaneso said.

It's mainly a night to hit the bars, and mainly a night to hit the bars downtown, veterans of the evening say.

"There's just a lot of activity going into, specifically, downtown that weekend," including the opening of Rotary Rink and the World's Largest Disco Party, said Buffalo Place's Joseph. "There's a boom in business for the bars and restaurants in downtown, specifically. It's all of the different types of people, all of the different demographics, coming into one place."

Keeping connected

The bars on Elmwood Avenue, Hertel Avenue and in the suburbs get a crowd comparable to what they see on a regular Friday or Saturday night.

Cole's gets a good number of expatriates that night - "Guys that worked here, guys that hung out here when they went to college" - and it's been that way for at least 30 years, said Dave Shatzel, the owner.

"It's a tradition. All the bartenders dress like pilgrims and Indians," he said.

Cole's and other neighborhood bars get the locals who don't want to fight the crowds.

Angel Kulczyk, a Buffalo resident and coffee shop employee, doesn't usually go out that night, and she said she wouldn't go downtown if she did.

The atmosphere on Chippewa, Kulczyk said, is "I'm here to hook up, get a little something or get completely trashed. Not my scene, by any means."

It's a busy night all around because hardly anyone has to work the next day. They can stay out until the wee hours and sleep until noon.

People make plans to meet friends they haven't seen in a while, friends back home from school or friends who've moved out of town for work and are back home visiting the family, Thanksgiving Eve veterans said.

"I attribute a lot of that to the amount of Buffalo people who are living out of town," Cole's Shatzel said.

It's hard to say for sure, but people who've lived in other cities say the night before Thanksgiving is not as big a phenomenon in Rochester, Syracuse, New York City and elsewhere.

It's a Buffalo thing. Even after so many young people moved away, they maintain close ties to the city, said Anthony C. Conte, president of Shea's Performing Arts Center.

"That's what it's all about. These kids come back because they want to keep that connection," Conte said.