“Thanksgiving in the Olden Time”: An 1876 Sermon Published in the New Hampshire Sentinel

Anybody born out of New England cannot have the true flavor of New England in his mouth, and it is to the happy saints, born in New England, that I address myself this morning, not forbidding others to catch the drops that fall from the goblet. When the children came home to Thanksgiving, the scene was memorable in my father’s house in old Litchfield [CT]. In those times the community was well off, because it was poor, thriving, Antique Thanksgiving postcardindustrious, and always about to be rich. Wages ranged at fifty cents a day. Hear that, ye brick-layers! The domestic loom still clicked; I hear it now. The shoemakers came round once a month and did up the making and mending. The tailoring was done at home. The best suit was as clearly marked off from the rest of the clothes as Sunday was from the rest of the week. Every child had some of the household work to do. Before I was ten years old I learned to sew, to knit, to wash dishes and prepare them to wash. I earned whippings, made fires, went to school and didn’t study, and was a body that nobody could get along with or without. The house I lived in was large and roomy, especially for the elements. Woe to those who had to burn red oak wood, spitting out sap at both ends, while the children cried, and the older persons were cross.

Nothing could live in Litchfield that wasn’t strong; so all the members of my father’s household were healthy. The fare was healthy. We had meat and bread, the historic gingerbread and plain cake, and we had pies. Let no man speak against pies; he is an enemy to the history of his country who speaks against pies. In those days a dinnerless day to me was like a suit of clothes composed of hat and shoes–there was a beginning and an end, but no middle. As a growing boy the law of a meal occasioned more sorrow than any little grace that had begun to grow in me could make up for. When the snow made a path for the sleds, the farmers collected and drew wood. Then there was a jubilee. The oven was full of good things, and, tell it not in Gath, there were barrels of home brew, and cider, and rum. Never but once did I know of my father’s taking spirituous liquor. He came home sick one day, and I saw him get some rum from the china closet. Thanksgiving was the one crowning festival of New England. We looked forward to it half a year, and looked back to it the other half. The harvests were all in, and surely it was right to offer up a bounteous first-fruits. The geese were put in training weeks and weeks before. The turkeys were appointed. Housewives consulted each other. The children were caught and put to service. Did we not chop mince meat till we almost wished there were no more mince pies? Do I not remember that Sunday when the Governor’s proclamation was unfolded and read, and we listened, smelling, afar off, the dinner?

At last it came–the looked-for day. The morning was like Sunday. No skating, no shoutings. The housekeepers were the only ones permitted to work. Everybody else was expected to go to church. No sooner had meeting let out than anything was allowed. The hour that elapsed before dinner, how did we live through it? At last the table was spread, the long blessing was said, and every conscientious child tried to taste something of everything on the table. The effort to hold out against surrender could not be sustained, and the children fell off one by one, and the illusion of the year was ended. I say that nobody can taste the flavor of the true Thanksgiving by those who practise in some way the economy of New England. Before I was fifteen years of age I do not think I possesses twenty-five cents. Whatever i had of knife or sled I earned. After working all the year, Thanksgiving joys could be appreciated.

I am told that the original stock of New England is running out. I do not believe this. I believe in the New England of the past, but I believe that to-day she is healthier, stronger, and richer, and more a blessing than ever before. Now I am going to boast, and those who do not like it can leave, or stay and take it at their peril. New England in the olden time was staid and sober, because the conditions were limited. Not one in ten then ever went out of New England who were born in it. Living secluded, intense individualism was developed. As dynamical forces, there never was anything better to cut features and mould character than the doctrines of New England. You can better them if you will, but not saying no; you can only do it by bringing better men than those New England produced. Religion, patriotism, public spirit, are a criterion of any land. There is littleness here and there, but as a whole, there is capability of great self-sacrifice. As to patriotism, when the flag was humbled, from whose loins sprang the first heroes? [Applause.] The men who kept close to the economy were from the bleeding ranks of New England, though in saying this I do not forget the great West and Middle States. — from H.W. Beecher’s Thanksgiving Sermon

Thanksgiving in the Olden Time
from New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene NH)
December 14, 1876

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