“Thanksgiving Memories,” by Francis Woodworth (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, October 1856, pp. 129-134)
A thousand pleasant recollections, as well as some sad ones, jostle each other in my mind, whenever I think of an old-fashioned New England Thanksgiving. I am one of the children of New England. It is quite possible I may have told my readers so before; but being a little proud of the place of my nativity, I suppose I have got the habit of alluding to it at every convenient opportunity, like some ministers, who get a theological crotchet into their heads, and love it so well that they find a place for it in half the sermons they preach. If they ought to be excused for riding their hobby to death, I think you will excuse me if I simply use mine until it is a little stiff in the joints. As I said, I am one of the children of New England—and, as I might have said, I was born in the good old commonwealth of Connecticut. There, as well as in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, this annual Thanksgiving festival was enjoyed when I was a little boy, with a zest unknown in any other section of our republic. It was in
these old States, among the descendants of the stern and radical, though upright and God-loving Puritans, that this idea of an annual Thanksgiving festival originated. These men—the first settlers of New England—were wont to carry their religion with them into all the affairs of life. Somewhat too precise they no doubt were. They wore too long faces sometimes, it can not be denied. There was—so it appears to us in these days—a little spice of cant in their sayings and doings. A little more toleration perhaps, a little more charity certainly, would not have hurt them. Yet, with all their faults, they were among the noblest specimens of humanity that the world ever saw; and the image of their character which they stamped upon their institutions, and which stands out so clearly and well-defined now, is a sufficient answer to those who traduce them. I must not be betrayed, however, into a eulogy upon New England.
How well I remember the advent, from year to year, of Thanksgiving. The period was looked forward to, especially among the little folks, for months before it arrived. We always knew it would take place some time late in the autumn, though we were kept in ignorance of the exact day. Either because our governors—who, though they were as I then thought, very little lower than the angels, must have had the common infirmities of Adam’s race—liked to keep their own secret in this respect, so as to give more awful solemnity to the proclamation, or for some other reason. On this head there was always abundant room left for guessing. When the proclamation did come, what a fluttering there was in that usually quiet neighborhood where I made my earliest acquaintance with the world. The document, with all due solemnity, was read—as it still is in Connecticut—from the pulpit, on the Lord’s day preceding the festival. I used to have a sort of religious awe of that proclamation. When it was spread out before the minister, with a picture—not in the highest style of the art, our modern engravers would say—of the great seal of the State at the head, it seemed to expand itself into immense proportions. It was a sublime sight. There it lay, in one respect, like a certain personage whom Milton describes as “floating large o’er many a rood.” I suppose the language of the document was earthly enough. But, for the most part, it had the air of another world about it, in my esteem. What a silly little sheep of a boy I must have been. The only thing in the whole broad sheet, which savored strongly of the earth, was a clause which our governors invariably closed with: “All the servile labor and vain recreation, on said day, are
by law forbidden. I did n’t like that clause. I remember I used to wonder if the governor, instead of beginning the world as a boy, pitched full-grown into life, after Adam’s fashion. I could not account for his being so hard on us, if he had ever known any thing about the luxury of playing ball. It struck me, that if he had ever had a hand at two-old-cat, he never could have been so cruel as to have forbidden the game on Thanksgiving day.
Some of you will inquire if we strictly obeyed the governor; and you may be surprised when I tell you, that so far as my father’s family was concerned—and I don’t think he formed a singular exception—the day was kept, in form, almost as strictly as the Sabbath. There were not wanting those in our neighborhood who sighed, now and then, for more liberty. But, as a general thing, our neighbors were law-abiding people. My brother and I tried hard, one year, to get the permission of our parents to a quiet game of ball behind the barn, with George Fish and Julian Peters. But we could n’t succeed. I remember one of the arguments we employed was, that playing ball did n’t come under the head of a “vain recreation,” inasmuch as it afforded the best of exercise. Yet even this logic did not secure the privilege. The truth is, those sons and daughters of the Puritans were rather straight-laced about such matters, though they came honestly enough by their notions.
I recollect that one Thanksgiving day, after most of our citizens had assembled at the meeting-house, though—it being before the services had commenced—as usual all the men and boys were standing outside and chatting with each other, a man from a neighboring village undertook to ride boldly past the house of God. This affront to the laws could not be tolerated at all. It was absolutely too bad that he should pass. The thing looked vastly suspicious. It appeared as if the naughty man, not having the fear of the governor before his eyes, was indulging the “vain recreation” of taking a jaunt in his wagon for pleasure. So one of the deacons, who was also a justice of the peace, I believe, stepped up to the traveler, and asked him, as civilly as he could, where he was going. The Thanksgiving-breaker answered, as civilly as he could, that it was none of Deacon Stark’s business. Thereupon the deacon said, “We’ll see about that,” and proceeded to “take up” the stranger, in the name of the commonwealth of Connecticut, and to place him in custody of the arm of the law, where he remained until the next day. Such arrests were not common, though. I never heard of one from that time until the year
when the legislature voted no longer to compel the people to refrain from servile labor and vain recreation on Thanksgiving days.
What delightful times we used to have when we kept our Thanksgiving at my grandfather’s, at the little brown cottage once the home of my mother. My grandfather always wanted, on such occasions, to entertain, if possible, all his children and grandchildren. It was seldom, to be sure, that the whole regiment came together—they were widely separated, and there were a great many of them—but the good old patriarch sometimes had his modest little dining-room so full, that even the ingenuity of my good-natured grandmother could hardly have found another square foot of room. My grandfather—I speak now of my mother’s father; my other grandfather was decidedly a man of the old school, thoroughly encased in dignity from head to foot, so that a child scarcely dare approach him—was a great lover of children. You never could place him in a more enviable situation, than to let loose upon him half a score of his noisy, romping grandchildren, all clamorous for the old gentleman’s best stories.
The first thing of importance to be done on the morning of Thanksgiving day, was to go to meeting and to listen to a long sermon. Ministers sometimes preached on politics in those times; and they always chose this day to “define their position” touching the affairs of government. Our minister, beside being one of the best men in the wide world, was a great politician from principle, and one of the stiffest Federalists you ever heard of. It was he who was once about to christen a child, and who, when the father whispered the name of Thomas Jefferson, raised his voice so that it could be heard in every nook and cranny of that old meeting-house, shouted, “This child’s name is John. I baptize him,” etc.
After listening to the Thanksgiving sermon, came the great event of the day. When I call the dinner the great event of the day, of course I speak as a boy, with a boy’s keen appetite, and a boy’s peculiar ideas of what constitutes a great event. As to Uncle Frank’s notion of this thing now, why that is another question. I can remember, with the utmost distinctness, what there used to be on the old table, and how the dishes were arranged. There was a profusion of every good thing edible. There were some things which, like the minister’s “cardinal doctrines,” were essential. It would not have been possible, I think, for my grandfather to have eaten his dinner cheerfully and thankfully without his turkey. Equally important
were two chicken-pies—two, always two, one on each end of the table. If you ask why there were two, I shall be obliged to confess my ignorance, for but one of these pies was ever cut on the occasion. I surmise—take the hint for what it is worth; ’tis only surmise—that the pie was duplicated for the sake of symmetry. The turkey, the great presiding genius of the repast, occupying the center, it seemed necessary, I suppose, that there should be a vice-presiding genius at each end.
I have some doubt if the baronial board of the old knights ever groaned under a heavier burden than my grandfather’s oak table was made to support at Thanksgiving dinners; and I am quite sure we used to have lots of nice things which the barons of old England never dreamed of. I remember I sometimes caught myself nourishing a feeling of gratitude that our governor was more lenient to us boys in the matter of eating roast turkeys and pumpkin-pies than he was about playing ball, and half praying that the time might come when he would act kindly and sensibly touching “vain recreations on said day.”
I have spoken of the reunion which this festival effected among those who were closely linked together by the ties of kindred, but who were separated during the rest of the year. After all, this feature in the Thanksgiving of that day, was the best of the whole. It tended to bind closer the bonds of affection. It revived the love of the old homestead, a sentiment which is beautiful and pure, almost holy. It fostered the reverence of those young parents of their aged sires. It gave those good old people, fast ripening for the harvest of the great Reaper, an opportunity to show that, though the parental head may whiten with age, the heart of parental love never grows old. Ay, it was the best thing about those annual festivals, that they drew sundered families together, and tended to keep affection pure from the rust and the mildew of time. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe a man could ever get all covered up with the sordid, and base, and worldly, and wicked coating which some wear, if he would make a pilgrimage once a year to the shrine of his childhood’s home, and commune with those who taught him the first principles of integrity, and virtue, and religion.
Yes, those were happy seasons, those old Thanksgiving days. I love now to call up the scenes connected with them. Every thing was bright and joyous then, and I seem to be a merry child again when I recall those seasons. But when I connect them in my mind
with the present, some drops of sadness fall into this sweet cup of memory. Where now are the forms of my dear old grandparents? Side by side they have long been slumbering in the grave-yard of their native village. They have ceased to welcome their children and their children’s children, year after year, to their well-furnished board. My father and my mother, who were wont to conduct their little family to the old hearth-stone, when the cherished festival arrived, as punctually and perhaps as devoutly as the pious Jews repaired to Jerusalem at one of their great national feasts—they have fallen. My mother! noble, generous, devoted woman! she carried my young heart with her. She had taken a firm hold of my affections. My sister, full of life and vivacity, and innocent mirth, always contributing so much to the interest of every entertainment in which she shared—she, too, has left us for heaven. Her sun went down while it was yet day—went down, but rose again in glory. And there was another one, for years associated with all my joys and my sorrows—one whom I loved with all the fondness of a naturally ardent soul—who early left me for a home in the skies. Is it any wonder that my memories of this time-honored festival are tinged with sadness? Is it any wonder, that, when there rise up before my mind visions of those loved and lost ones, I am forced to stop to dash aside a tear-drop?
But, even with the mixture of sadness which is inseparable from their memories, this old New England Thanksgiving will ever be dear to my heart. Blessings on the hallowed festival, and honor to the memory of the men who gave it to us. I could wish it might take root in every section of our republic, and that it might diffuse as genial an influence every where as it has where it had its origin.