A Literary Thanksgiving

Estimated read time 6 min read

A Literary Thanksgiving

The holiday has always served as a reminder of the Christian character of the American people.

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Credit: Marjory Collins

O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: for His mercy endureth for ever. Ps. 107:1 (KJV)

As far as holidays go, Thanksgiving in America is a relative newcomer to the official calendar. Celebrated on various dates throughout New England in the colonies and during the early republic, it was federally proclaimed by President Lincoln on October 3, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Despite the “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field,” Lincoln nevertheless recognized that America had much for which to be thankful. Foreign nations had not taken advantage of the strife in order to launch their own assaults on the fractured union, and both the population and country continued to grow. America could “expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom,” Lincoln proclaimed, before giving the thanks to God for the country’s prosperity:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

In words which echo Psalm 107, Lincoln makes the case for his invitation to Americans to celebrate “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” His fellow Americans were quick to answer that invitation, and the custom of celebrating Thanksgiving has only grown in the intervening years.

But Lincoln did not invent Thanksgiving, nor was the decision to proclaim it his idea alone. Rather, the American editor and author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, had long campaigned for a presidential proclamation to this effect, writing to five successive presidents in turn, beginning with Zachary Taylor, before she was able to persuade Lincoln to act. Her indefatigable enthusiasm for Thanksgiving was evidenced decades before Lincoln’s proclamation, in the eighth chapter of her novel, Northwood (1827), which details the menu on offer at a traditional Thanksgiving: a roasted turkey, savory stuffing, a sirloin of beef, a leg of pork, a joint of mutton, innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables, a goose, a pair of ducklings, chicken pie, pumpkin pie, pickles, preserves, butter, white bread, a huge plumb pudding, custards, pies “of every name and description ever known in Yankee land,” several kinds of rich cake, a variety of sweetmeats and fruits, currant wine, excellent cider, and ginger beer (but no ardent spirits).

Hale’s portrayal of Thanksgiving in Northwood is replete with details not only of the meal, but also of the motivations which underpinned the customs of its celebration. The dining table “was now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion, and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving supper surrounded by a large family.” And the blessing “was not merely a form of words, mechanically mumbled over to comply with an established custom, or perform as an irksome duty—It was the breathings of a good and grateful heart acknowledging the mercies received, and sincerely thanking the Giver of every good gift for the plenteous portion he had bestowed.” And an outsider—an Englishman—is invited to partake along with the family, by whom he is hospitably welcomed as an honored guest.

Hence the traditions of Thanksgiving as Hale describes them, perfectly enjoyable in their own right, are accompanied by salutary customs of mind that are conducive to the moral and spiritual outlook of a Christian people: hospitality, celebration of family, and the duty of thanks and praise owed to the Creator of the universe. It was this conception of Thanksgiving that Hale had in mind when she wrote to five American presidents. Her desire to see it spread throughout the land was grounded in her belief that it would be to the great moral and spiritual good of the American people to celebrate such a holiday.

At around the same time that Hale was writing Northwood, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was making his first attempts at serious poetry. A New England man, Longfellow would certainly have been familiar with the traditional celebration of Thanksgiving, and hence it may seem unsurprising to find, amongst the earliest of his juvenile poems, one entitled, “Thanksgiving” (probably written at the beginning of the 1820s). The poem eschews any description of the customs of the public holiday in favor of an exploration of the offering of thanks and praise to God. The opening lines part the veil of history in order to depict the Biblical origins of thanks-giving:

When first in ancient time, from Jubal’s tongue

The tuneful anthem filled the morning air,

To sacred hymnings and elysian song

His music-breathing shell the minstrel woke.

Devotion breathed aloud from every chord:

The voice of praise was heard in every tone,

And prayer and thanks to Him, the Eternal One,

To Him, that with bright inspiration touched

The high and gifted lyre of heavenly song,

And warmed the soul with new vitality.

Jubal is a Biblical figure mentioned only once, in Genesis 4:21, where he is described as the father of those who play the lyre and the pipes. Just as Hale’s Northwood uses the descriptions of ordinary customs (hospitality, dinner, offering grace) as a means to explore the deeper substance that lies behind tradition, Longfellow’s “Thanksgiving” uses Jubal’s playing of music to explore the relation of the natural world to its Creator. The song he sings, and the music from his lyre, wake in Nature a song of praise, heard in every breeze and waterfall, and culminating in its infinite expression:

The morning stars, that sweetly sang together;

The moon, that hung at night in the mid-sky;

Dayspring and eventide; and all the fair

And beautiful forms of nature, had a voice

Of eloquent worship.

It is this expression of worship, of nature’s thanks-giving (paradoxically echoing man’s thanks-giving) that lies beneath Hale’s depiction of the blessing over the meal and Lincoln’s invitation to join in the new holiday. “And have our hearts grown cold?” asks Longfellow’s poem, “Are there on earth / no pure reflections caught from heavenly light? / Have our mute lips no hymn? Our souls no song?” The solution comes in the final line, at once an affirmation to both Hale and Lincoln alike: “Praise Him that rules the destiny of man.”

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