Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Another Perspective on the Old New England Thanksgiving

Please note that this excerpt was how Thanksgiving was celebrated during the first part of the 19th Century. Also note that Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until Lincoln declared it in 1863.

The excerpt comes from "The Guardian" ©1875
Thanksgiving reared its honest November head far above all others, at the one genuine, crowning festival of New England. We looked forward to it full half a year, with bright anticipations; and with fond remembrance we looked back upon it through the other half. The scattered children were all to come home that day. For months ahead, with wise house-keepers' prudence, the appropriate sacrifices were prepared. The whole year had been fruitful that there might be one lavish day, and that the only lavish day, on which there was no injunction of economy. There was no word about saving, but every exhortation to eat, and eat again in welcome. That lavish day was Thanksgiving. The harvests were all in, and were safe; and surely, it was right, before settling down to the narrow path of economy again, to offer up the bounteous firstfruits of the year.
Every man was his own caterer. The barnyard and the cellar were the markets. The geese were selected and put in training weeks and weeks before. The turkeys were appointed. The coops of chickens and ducks were set apart. The sucking pig, and the other delicacies were marked down. Nothing was too good for Thanksgiving.
The housewives conferred together. Bills of fare were made up as solemnly, almost, as protocols and treaties. It was the central day. Everything revolved around Thanksgiving. Everybody was caught and used in preparing for it. Did not our children's hands ache in grinding, and our arms ache in pounding spices? Did not we chop mince-meat until we began to wish that there were no mince-pies? Did not we pare and core? Was not the kitchen,
for weeks before, the scene of laborious preparations? And was not every interference met with the remark, " Get out of the way! If you cannot help, you must not hinder. Thanksgiving is coming, and cannot be put off!"
How glorious was that Sunday morning, when, after the sermon, with suitable state and solemnity, the great white sheet was unfolded, and the Governor's Proclamation was read from the pulpit. The great sermon being ended, then followed this little sermon. How we listened, without thinking much of the sentences! Afar ofT were smelled the dinners which were to be served up on that crowning day.
The day before was almost too much for us. It well-nigh exhausted our nervous sensibility. Half the night before was spent in preparations. The first half of Thanksgiving was a holy day, and the last half was a holiday. The morning might not be used except as Sunday, with no sleds, no guns, no skating, and no shouting. Cooking was the only secular employment permitted on Thanksgiving-day morning. All except servants and cooks were expected to go to church. The service generally was very much like the Sunday service; but sometimes it was a vent for all the little odds and ends of the year which it was not thought convenient to preach at the regular service on Sunday. Frequently Thanksgiving was a political safety-valve. It was a kind of ground on which the minister was allowed to express himself on public affairs. It was, however, an education; and the discussions kept alive, often, through the whole year, among the families of the people, great questions of State.
No sooner was meeting dismissed than instantly, like a flash, all was changed. Anything now was admissible; wild capers, running, tumbling, snow-balling, and what not? Everybody's face was turned homeward.
The impatient hour that elapsed between reaching home and the great event—how did we live through it? At length all came in. The wonderful table was stretched out. The long " blessing" was said. And the assault commenced. There was an endeavor on the part of every conscientious child to eat something of everything. Tne onslaught was made with great energy; but the reluctant surrender could not be long delayed, and with deep regrets at their want of capacity, the children One by one fell off; and the illusion of the year was ended.
I say, again, that no man will ever know the true flavor of a New England Thanksgiving of the olden time who has not known something of the frugality required by the honorable poverty of those times. Men were not brought up so easily that no effort was required on their part. Almost everything that a boy had he earned. In my own case, until after I was fifteen years old, I do not believe I ever at one time owned twenty-five cents in money. I do not remember ever to have received from my father the amount of more than six and a quarter cents, the old Spanish coin. Whatever I owned, of knife, or sled, or other plaything, I earned. Gifts were few—except the gifts of nature; and they who lived in those days lived with the understanding that they must think out, and plan out, and work out everything that they had. And though it was hard, it was not harder than the anvil is to the sword, or the grindstone is to its edge, that makes it a trusty instrument in the day of battle. No man can know the genuine flavor of the old New England Thanksgiving who has not known something of the untiring work and rigid seclusion which belonged to that day, and of the very narrow bounds within which amusements were confined.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the people were cheerful. They were earnest; they were solemn; they lived unsmiling men, too often, under a sense of fearful responsibility ; but there was, after all, in their suppressed natures, and especially in their home-life, a depth and fervor of enjoyment which is almost without exposition, and which is hardly known to those who live in the midst of the affluence and advantages of the present day.
Some may fancy the fire of prosperity to be designed rather for comfort than for trial; rather to refresh than to search us; but scarcely anything more clearly demonstrates the falseness or soundness of religion; it is to grace what fire is to gold.

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