Tommy Joe's in Downtown Bethesda is packed on Thanksgiving Eve with post-grads and college students who have returned home to see family and old friends. (Craig Hudson/For The Washington Post)

It’s a holiday rooted in togetherness, a cherished opportunity to spend time with the people who matter most.

Which is precisely why Eli Hager arrives home from New York City the night before Thanksgiving, eats dinner with his family and then makes a beeline for Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda, where the crowd at the bar is three-deep by 10:30 p.m., and drink orders have to be shouted over Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Hager and his friends, a half-dozen 20-somethings at a table crowned with beer bottles in a darkened corner, are here for a holiday observance of their own. Since graduating from high school in 2007, the former classmates have scattered across the region and beyond — but they always come together for this.

“It’s been a tradition ever since we were old enough to be allowed into bars,” says Rachel Finkelstein, seated beside Hager in the booth.

Some holiday rituals are timeless and inclusive — a favorite family recipe, say, or a neighborhood football game. The practice of gathering for a boozy night before Thanksgiving, however, belongs to the recent post-grads, young adults not yet responsible for families of their own.

Members of this club understand: Thanksgiving is for celebrating with family; the night before, for partying with friends.

So while the holiday weekend is a prime time for formal high school reunions, the informal gatherings have their own appeal. There’s no official space, no set protocol. It suits those of in-
between life stages: not quite a kid, not quite grown up. It’s an opportunity to present a revised version of oneself, to overwrite high school and college archetypes.

The phenomenon is sufficiently established that, only hours before Washington Post reporters were dispatched to bars, the satirical newspaper the Onion beat them to the punch with a story about a 26-year-old destined to encounter his less-than-favorite classmates the night before Thanksgiving. (The ribald Onion’s precise phrasing is not quotable in a family newspaper.)

After 11 years as owner of Tommy Joe’s, Alan Pohoryles has seen this many times.

“Tommy Joe’s has been jammed on the Wednesday and Friday of Thanksgiving every year for the last 10 years,” he says, adding that it’s easily one of the bar’s busiest nights.

“It will get crazy. I’ve always said if you don’t have a line [outside] on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, you should reconsider being in the bar business.”

Alain Bernadotte is standing in the outdoor bar area with a dozen 20-something graduates of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney. He guesses that there could be 100 former classmates here tonight.

“Everyone understands that the night before Thanksgiving is a big night,” he says.

Bernadotte is still close with some of his high school friends, he says, most of whom still live in the area. But tonight offers a chance to reconnect with a larger group.

“Some I haven’t seen since last year at the same event,” he says.

Across the Potomac, young adults file into bars in Fairfax and fill dance floors at clubs in Arlington County late into the night. At the Auld Shebeen, an Irish pub in Fairfax, a few dozen 20- and 30-somethings gather in groups around the bar, sipping pints and catching up. It’s low-key, but Drew Prout, 32, says he and his friends — former classmates from Woodson High School in Fairfax — are still out to make the most of the night before a day spent with relatives.

“I like to go to out the night before . . . because the next day, I will succumb to a household of people I don’t want to spend the day with,” he says, his tone suggesting that he is half-joking.

Friends, after all, are the family members you choose — and they don’t judge.

“I bring a six-pack home and [family members] say, ‘Will you drink all of that?’ ” Prout says.
“ ‘Yes, Mom, I will.’ ”

Not all are looking to avoid family members. Brendan Fechter, a 2001 graduate of Wootton High School in Rockville, is happy to be drinking beers with his younger brother, home from New York. They met high school friends at the outdoor bar at Tommy Joe’s, where white lights dangle from wooden beams and the chill autumn air is overwhelmed by the heat of a nearly impenetrable crowd.

Fechter, a bartender in the District, makes a point to ask off from work not just for the holiday , but the night before.

“It’s just a great time to get together with friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in years,” he said.

He gestures toward a group clustered around a tall bar table. “There’s people who have come from New York, Philly, Miami, California,” he says. “It’s our own kind of homecoming.”

As the night goes on — and empty bottles and shot glasses begin to pile up — a ritual of reconnection looks increasingly like a typical weekend barfest. Alcohol erases inhibitions on the crowded dance floor, where awkward guys gyrate with abandon to pounding bass and perfectly coiffed girls unabashedly shout explicit lyrics.

Outside, visibly inebriated post-grads spill out of cabs to stand in a line that stretches the length of the block.

As the scene grows increasingly boisterous, Eli Hager and his friends are content to hang out at their corner table and talk — or shout — over the thumping music. Bryant Renaud predicts that Friday night will be later and crazier: More of their former classmates from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High will be in town by then, he says.

For tonight, he says, there’s some desire for moderation, out of respect for visiting relatives and the upcoming holiday feast.

“You want to have an appetite,” Renaud says. The others sip their beers and nod. “You don’t want to be too hung over on Thanksgiving.”