Aunt Em on Thanksgiving

00-Emmeline_B._WellsFor Thanksgiving, I’m posting this essay, written by one of the principle figures of 19th century Mormon letters and perhaps Mormonism’s first prominent feminist. While not a particularly insightful essay, this is somewhat interesting for its understanding of the Thanksgiving holiday in the first few decades after it became popular. I suspect much of Amethyst’s understanding of the holiday’s history is wrong, but its hard to dispute her claims of what Thanksgiving was like in New England “Forty years ago”

I’d be interested to hear what others think of Aunt Em’s description of a New England Thanksgiving in the 1840s.


Thanksgiving Day

THANKSGIVING day has for many years been so universally observed in the United States that perchance our young people think it a custom come down from the ages, and have very little idea of its origin. However, it is not yet two and a half centuries since the first Thanksgiving day was proclaimed in good, old New England; and it was one of the new fangled notions of the heterodox-orthodox Puritans. Our forefathers and foremothers, the Pilgrims, so bitterly hated their persecutors and oppressors, the “Britishers,” that they “would have none of their customs.” A new era of events and of habits was a necessity of the new civilization, in a new world. All things had changed with them, and they followed not after the forms and ceremonies of those who had forced them into exile because of their religious faith.

Christmas had always been a day of days in old England, looked forward to with bright anticipation, and goodly cheer, but as it was the popular, national day of rejoicing with their persecutors, the staunch old Puritans denied themselves the luxury of Christmas-tide, and set their faces like flint against everything that savored of the habits of those from whom they had fled. Even their marriages were solemnized in a different manner, and they held in horror the use of the ring, in the marriage rite as a “relique of Popery,” and alluded to it as a “diabolical circle for the Devill to daunce in.” Those were peculiar times and a peculiar class of people. Any one looking back even a century, would scarcely recognize the descendants of these Puritans, as belonging to the same straight-laced race, so changed has everything become. Yet in some remote districts in the country these strong prejudices and the intense hatred of the rites of the English church still prevail.

It was eighteen years after the landing of the Mayflower ere the new settlers or pioneers decided upon establishing a regular day of Thanksgiving. Fast days had been observed quite regularly, at which times thanks and prayers were offered and intercession made for blessings, but this did not altogether satisfy the people, who really craved some public opportunity of expressing gratitude to the Lord for his goodness in bestowing upon them prosperity; and therefore it was resolved that a day should be officially appointed for solemn prayer and praise in public assemblies convened for that special purpose; these were held in meeting-houses or places used for religious worship. The word “churches” was one of the terms tabooed. It seems wonderful that where instruments of music in public worship were absolutely “proscribed,” now music is at the height of perfection in sacred worship and in all holy and consecrated places. It is indeed marvelous the changes time hath wrought since the days of the Salem witchcraft. Now even the strictest Puritans can recognize Christmas, and marriage with a ring is not looked upon as from the devil. Thanksgiving day is not a thing of the past only, however, for we still remember and respect the good old custom of thanking God for His mercies and especially for the bountiful harvests He continues to bless us with from year to year.

Forty years ago in New England, Thanksgiving was the gala day of the holiday season; in fact, it was the “opening of the ball.” The fattest turkeys and fowls of all descriptions, the choicest meats and viands, the “goldenest” of pumpkins, the sweetest cider and the most tempting home-made wines were all reserved for Thanksgiving. It was not so much an occasion of giving presents, but of family gatherings to enjoy the festive cheer, and greetings and meetings were among the distinguishing features of the happy event. The home, be it ever so lowly, was sure to be decorated with the prettiest and brightest winter berries and the most luxuriant winter evergreens of trailing vines and drooping, graceful boughs. Many a humble cot thus ornamented, with its wide open fireplace and blazing logs or artistically piled pine knots, the reflection of the bright light beautifying the room, presented more real comfort and true hospitality and afforded more grateful pleasure to the inmates than the palatial mansions of the present day. And this is why we continually revert to the good old times; our hearts were more tender in youth, our enjoyments fewer and partaken with a keener relish. Now we actually bask in the sunshine of plenty and almost of luxury, and the simplicity of former days seems to us hallowed by its old-time recollections and earlier associations.

Thanksgiving is one of the days we should never cease to keep. There are a few links that bind together the old and the new. This is one of the brightest links to connect the new with the old. One of the old landmarks that is an index to demonstrate the peculiar traits of character of the early New Englanders, their faith and courage, their humility and zeal, their firm adherence to principle and their determination to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences and not to be controlled by kingly authority. O, the magnanimity of character, the unswerving devotion of those heroic men and women! How proudly do they who are descended from this noble lineage look back upon their ancestry!

But it was not my design to elaborate upon principles, but to speak of the celebration of Thanksgiving, the actual events that characterize the day, making it something separate and apart from all other days. The careful New England housewife, forty years ago, used to commence preparations at least a week before the eventful Thursday. The oldfashioned brick ovens are heated, and with a long-handled wooden shovel, the large pans of bread, meat and puddings are shoved in, and the never-forgotten dish of pork and beans always baked a beautiful brown. Then followed pies of all varieties; cakes, plain and frosted, silver and golden, fruit and jelly cakes in abundance; and what we children doted upon most of all, an immense tray of turnovers. We used to go singing and dancing around the house in fond anticipation of the gala time, and the woods were-searched through and through for the green vines, winter leaves and berries that lie under the snow. With trailing garlands of these, our aprons and baskets filled, our shoulders mantled with the handsome foliage, we hastened home, looking more like weird wood-nymphs than properly behaved children, and often reproved for our exuberance of spirits and the terrible litter we made with our woodland trophies; but when the best and prettiest had been selected to decorate with, how we all enjoyed the arranging; and one need never tire of the beautiful picture the poorest, humblest rooms presented when the rustic ornamenting was done. Remember, this was in the country, and forty years ago. After this part of the pleasant work was finished, the garrets were ransacked for the quaintest, funniest, old-fashioned things to complete the arrangements, for those were not the days of elaborate furnishings. Childish happiness did not consist in loads of fancy toys and bran new gay-colored picture-books; we were supremely content with very few rudely-made playthings; maple sugar and molasses candy were the staple sweets. For stories, we were delighted to sit and listen to the tales of queens and “ladies of high degree,” and how they had been locked up in prisons and debarred from the society of a “lovyer;” occasionally one of them would be brave enough to burst the prison and fly with the captive maiden to some remote retreat or fastness, or old ruined castle, with a draw-bridge and moat, where they dwelt forever peace and love, without a ripple of discontent.

The night before Thanksgiving, all the work, such as sewing, knitting, embroidery or fancy work, was put away, spinning wheels set aside until after the day was past. If any portion of the family were away from home, it was usual to return, and often it was the eve before when such arrivals were more common, the elder girls and boys from school, or perhaps a grown up son from Yale, Harvard or Dartmouth and invited guests. The rooms were all in order, and the “spare chambers” well aired and ready for occupants. Order is the ruling passion in New England village homes; there is method in every arrangement, so much method and precision that children were never at ease, but constantly in fear of doing improper things. Those were the times when children were under too much restraint; now we have the opposite; sometime in the future we may strike the “happy medium.” Well, as I said before, the eve before Thanksgiving is the time for arrivals and talking over family matters. In the morning, every one in the house is astir early, although perhaps later than usual in retiring; the breakfast is simple and the conversation generally upon old-time memories, unless there is a new minister; if that be the case, he is sure to be the topic. The next thing on the programme is to go to the meeting; the meeting-house (church was not orthodox in those days) is decorated; that is sure to have been done by women; such unselfish women as are always ready to do good, generally styled “old maids,” whose artistic taste in decorating add grace and loveliness to all entertainments whether sacred or social. Prayers are offered, hymns are sung, a Thanksgiving sermon is preached, and a joyful anthem rendered by the choir, who are dressed for the occasion, wearing bows of green ribbon in honor of the day.

After meeting comes the feasting and merriment. The family and friends gather round the festive board, the blessing is invoked, then follows the carving of turkeys, young pigs roasted whole, and great sirloins of beef; every one is bountifully served, the guests and family sit long at table talking over the events of the year, discussing the talents and merits of the children, and the male members of the group perhaps enter upon politics. The dinner over, they gather around the wide-open fire-places and sing the oldest songs and tell the queerest stories, occasionally interspersed with music and lively games, in which the little people join. By and by, tea is served, with delicacies to tempt the appetite; and later in the evening, apples and cider, with nuts fresh from the woods, delicious and juicy. Sometimes dancing is indulged in, when the inmates are not too Puritanical.

This is a true pen picture of Thanksgiving in families “away down East.” Times have changed, but these festivities can never be obliterated from memory; they are restful places in life’s weary way; they impress the heart and are helps in forming character. The pleasure and blessings we receive from association in family gatherings is one of the very best methods of educating the heart. Thanksgiving day ought always to be celebrated not only as a positive Americanism, as much as Independence day is, but to remind our children and children’s children of the customs observed by the Pilgrims and why.


Amethyst was a pen name of Emmeline B. Wells (as was “Aunt Em”). This essay was published in The Contributor, v4 no 3, December 1882.

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