Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving
By Martha Joanna Lamb (18291893)
[Born in Plainfield, Mass., 1829. Died New York, N. Y., 1893. Magazine of American History. Edited by Mrs. Martha J. Lamb. December, 1886.]
OUR party arrived, after a tiresome drive, on the night before the day big with the fate of many fowls. Sent early to bed, we were prepared for Thanksgiving breakfast at the regulation hour, where the delicious chicken served so bountifully was but the foretaste of what was to follow as the day progressed. Then came family devotions, each person present, old and young, participating in the service by reading two verses of Scripture, and kneeling while the prayer was offered, in which these words were uttered: It is both the duty and the privilege of a Christian people to recognize their obligations to the bountiful Giver of all good, and to recognize the fresh and continued evidence of the divine favor and forbearance during the past year. The host, at this date, was a portly, well-preserved, warm-hearted man, of some fourscore years, whose eye-sight (without the aid of glasses) was perfect, but who walked with crutches, one foot having been destroyed. He was a most delightful story-teller, and was ever in his best and happiest humor with a group of grandchildren clustered about himone usually occupying the place of honor on his sound kneelistening with bated breath to the stirring accounts of his exploits in the Revolutionary army. He was just fifteen years of age when hostilities began, and his diverting narrative of how he skipped behind his uncle at the battle of Bunker Hill, to escape being shot by the enemy, brought him very close to the heart of his juvenile audience. He grew older and of more consequence as the war advanced, and was engaged in serious work. Tragic, indeed, was the story of how he was four days without food in the woods of Maine, wandering from the Penobscot River, up which his sloop had been chased by the British, through the wilderness to Boston. All his varied experiences were, for us, most exciting and bewildering.
The hostess, who as we have seen was his junior by three years, was exceedingly tall, commanding in appearance, and very grave and earnest in conversation. She was kind and gentle and lovable, but rarely laughed with us. When we claimed her attention, she explained to us the true character of the Thanksgiving festival, and said it ought always to be regarded as a strictly religious celebration. She told us that it was originally suggested by the Hebrew feast of tabernacles, and was not unusual in Europe before the discovery of America; that such a day was observed in Leyden, Holland, on the 3d of October, 1575, the first anniversary of the deliverance of that city from siege; and that her ancestors who came over in the Mayflower, in 1620, held the first New England Thanksgiving, within ten months after landing at Plymouth. Looking into her sweet, deep-blue eyes and animated face while these words fell from her lips, we could almost, with but slight help of the imagination, see the far-away light on the Atlantic coast, as Governor Bradfords four men came back from fowling to rejoice and be thankful all together. One grandchild, lifted suddenly among the clouds of fancy with the thrilling idea, ran screaming through the house: I can touch the first Thanksgiving in the world! Our dear grandmother was there just after she came over in the Mayflower, more than two hundred years ago, and I can put my hand upon her living hand, and kiss her beautiful white hair! The check to such an ambitious flight came quickly, and the severe and well-timed rebuke for inattention and inaccuracy was singularly effectual. Just then a rollicking rover brought sensational news from the kitchen, to the effect that a big conflagration had broken out in the brick oven, that six puddings were filled with plums, and that Lady Jane Grey, Queen Elizabeth, and Marie Antoinette, with their heads cut off, were being dressed for dinner! We were wisely restrained from inquisitive questioning and from individual investigation, by the order to make ready for church. When the adult visitors were also equipped, it was found that a part of our juvenile delegation had moved on in advance, perched hatless and cloakless on the back of a quaint little white pony some three and a half feet high, belonging to one of the party. Such boisterous proceedings suggested far too much levity for the solemn and important occasion, and we were called back and dismounted, to our infinite regret, and to the apparent dissatisfaction of the notable pony, with his oval-shaped ears standing up as straight as church spires, above wicked-looking eyes, for he was never averse to a frolic. But every trace of mirth and irreverence was subdued before we reached the sacred edifice, which we entered with as much gravity and somewhat of the dignity of our elders. This old meeting-house, fashioned after a pattern never much known beyond New England, and long since obsolete, was a curiosity in its way. Its pews were square-like boxes, and the family, when seated on all sides of one, queerly resembled a sleigh-riding partythe children and other inconsequential persons being placed with their backs to the minister. The pulpit was high and straight, and over the head of the preacher was suspended an immense sounding-board. The deacons had a pew to themselves in front of the pulpit; and the choir nearly filled the great galleries extending across three sides of the building, suggesting to the very young mind the old picture of Xerxes and his hostsespecially in rising to sing a hymn, with the leader brandishing his enormous tuning-fork. When the choir stood, the congregation stood also. The Thanksgiving sermon to which we listened was most impressive. The learned pastor infused into it the heat of his own enthusiasm, the full measure of his own gratitude for blessings received. There was no ambiguity in his expressions, no confusion in his own thoughts of how much to attempt or how to discriminate. His style was simple and direct, his speech as spontaneous as that of an ingenuous, impetuous boy, his piety as transparent as glass .
The mystery of mysteries was the cooking of the Thanksgiving dinner. To most of us, at that period, the long crane in the monster fireplace was a novelty, and the iron kettles of varied shapes and sizes hanging upon it, with their boiling and stewing contents, of greater moment than the British Museum has ever been to us since. Steaming pies, mince, apple, and pumpkin, coming from the brick oven, together with a regiment of puddings, whetted our appetites marvelously; and chickens roasting before the fire in a movable tin bake-oven were declared done by a self-appointed committee a dozen times or more before the banquet hour arrived. The chicken pie, without which no New England Thanksgiving could have been complete, we did not discover until we were served to it at the table. But we had secret advices from our cheery host that it was baking, with a friendly caution against indecorous interrogation where so many amateur cooks were concerned; and while we waited, with a polite exhibition of excessive patience not very cordially felt, he charmed us with another invoice of captivating stories.