Wednesday, December 11, 2013


The sixteenth century was a time of religious reformation and social renaissance, with much of Europe torn by open warfare between governments defending papal power and citizens searching for greater individual freedom. For 80 years, the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands had suppressed freedom of worship, forbidding the Dutch people even to gather together to worship. Finally, in 1597 victory over the Habsburg rulers brought freedom at last, leading Adrianus Valerius to write a hymn in celebration. In its anglicized version (thanks to Theodore Baker), we know it today as We Gather Together. Most of the Mayflower Pilgrims had been enjoying religious refuge in Leyden, Holland, and at some point, the old hymn of freedom also made its way across the Atlantic. Today it is one of several Thanksgiving favorites sung by almost every Christian congregation, growing in popularity particularly during World War I and World War II.

            Known to his English contemporaries as a young man of “purity of mind and singleness of purpose” and possessing “a confidence and unobtrusive self-respect which never failed him”, Henry Alford devoted his life to a study of The Bible and his devotion to the clergy, including a position at Canterbury Cathedral. He is best remembered though for his hymn of thanksgiving, Come Ye Thankful People Come, another iconic piece of music with a message reminding us of the deeply religious roots of that November day we call Thanksgiving.

            One of the first American women to actually earn a living from her writing, Lydia Maria Child made a name for herself giving advice and counsel to 19th century women, with such titles as “The Frugal Housewife”, “The Mother’s Book” and “A Little Girl’s Own Guide”. A tireless activist throughout her life, she was a fierce warrior for women’s rights, an opponent of American expansionism, and one of the earliest and most vocal abolitionists. She also criticized the treatment of Native Americans, and often found herself in a small minority with her very public views on slavery. After the Civil War, she wrote and edited a book and a newsletter designed to help educate newly-freed slaves.

            In 1844, in a work published as “Flowers for Children – Volume 2”, Child included a poem of six verses describing her own memories of a winter visit to her grandfather’s Massachusetts farm originally titled “A Boy’s Thanksgiving”. We know it today for its first line: Over the River and Through the Wood, and it has become so synonymous with the whole Thanksgiving Day institution in America as to take its place as one of the most traditional word- pictures of early American holiday life. It is set against the kind of early winter which visited New England in a climatic era which is still known as a “mini ice age”. (*)

            Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Thanksgiving is a time to remember, and to celebrate the “spiritual harvest” which is a part of our unique heritage. As important as roast turkey, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie may be, I would hope that gathering together as families while honoring and strengthening our own set of traditions underline what this celebration is really all about ; a time to be a THANKFUL PEOPLE, who GATHER TOGETHER TO ASK THE LORD’S BLESSINGS.

NOTE: In 1943 a Liberty Ship named the SS Lydia M. Child was launched to serve during WWII.
A wagon load of pumpkins and squash reminds us of the spirit of the harvest and plenty we have observed each Thanksgiving since that first one at Plymouth 392 years ago.                                Al Cooper Photo

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