Wednesday 23 November 2016

A Nineteenth-Century Thanksgiving

"Only one more day and then it will be the time to eat."

‘An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving’ (1881) is a short story by Louisa May Alcott telling the tale of a family Thanksgiving in New Hampshire in the 1820s. With ‘Gran’ma’ falling ill 20 miles away, preparing the holiday meal falls to Tilly and the rest of the seven-strong brood of farmer’s sons and daughters.

The girls’ efforts in the kitchen vary in success (the stuffing and plum pudding are a little beyond them) and a possible bear attack briefly interrupts proceedings, but all is done, as you’d imagine, with the appropriate familial spirit and gratitude.

Here are some details we learn about nineteenth-century Thanksgiving traditions:

The turkey isn’t the only one for whom Thanksgiving’s no fun
A pig has also been slaughtered for the occasion, but the girls can’t bring themselves to cook it: "I couldn't do it. I loved that little pig, and cried when he was killed. I should feel as if I was roasting the baby," answered Tilly, glancing toward the buttery where piggy hung, looking so pink and pretty it certainly did seem cruel to eat him.’

Oranges are a fine Thanksgiving treat
The Bassett family has grown or reared most of their Thanksgiving food, but oranges ‘if they warn't too high’ are an especially acquired delicacy for the occasion.

The table is decorated with even more food
We are told: ‘nuts and apples at the corners gave an air, and the place of honor was left in the middle for the oranges yet to come.’

After the feasting come traditional games
The family play at ‘blind-man's bluff’, ‘hunt the slipper’ and ‘come, Philander’ once they’ve had their fill.

Festivities should end with kissing all around
‘Apples and cider, chat and singing, finished the evening, and after a grand kissing all round, the guests drove away in the clear moonlight which came out to cheer their long drive.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Secret Victorianist! Do you know of any other nineteenth-century texts that touch on the holiday? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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