Friday, November 20, 2020

Thanksgiving Day

 by John Fierst

We all know the poem, at least the first few lines, if not the five stanzas that follow:

                                      “Over the river and through the wood,
                                      To grandmother’s house we go
                                      The horse knows the way
                                      To carry the sleigh . . .
                                      etc., etc. etc.”

But did you know that in the original poem they were actually headed to grandfather’s house?  It surprised me too.  Sorry, Grandma.  I came across this disconcerting fact last week while helping a patron.  He was looking for an early primer that he hoped to find in our children’s collection.  While searching, I came across the poem “Thanksgiving Day,” which caught my attention because of the forthcoming holiday.  It was in an anthology published in 1900, and the first lines read:

                                      Over the river and through the wood,
                                      To grandfather’s house we go

Could that be right, grandfather’s house?  The name of the author of the poem surprised me even more: Lydia Maria Child.  Really!  She was the author of “Over the river and through the wood?” I knew who she was but knew little about her. Wikipedia describes her as “an American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, Native American rights activist, novelist, journalist, and opponent of American expansionism.”  She was born in 1802 and died in 1880.  She was a fellow-abolitionist and friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  The Clarke Historical Library, in its John Greenleaf Whittier collection, holds several letters Child wrote to Whittier (June 19, 1864, June 18, 1878, and October 25, 1879).  

In the poem, did she originally intend it to be grandmother’s house to which we were sleighing?  Or was it grandfather’s?  (Yes, I know, they lived together.  But a point as important as this should not be left to guesswork.  Future generations of children, millions, will be singing this poem.)  A reading of the poem as originally published would answer the question. The poem was first published in 1845 in the second volume of a set of three volumes entitled Flowers for Children.  The Clarke cataloger gave our copy of the set the call number PS1293.F55 1844xa.  Thinking this would be easy, I went confidently to the stacks and pulled Flowers for Children off the shelf, opened the clamshell box, and found inside two copies of volume one and one copy of volume three.  The poem is in volume two.   Nor is volume two easily to be found. doesn’t even list it.  But I did finally track down a transcription of the original poem.  The Pilgrim Hall Museum has placed a transcription of it online. The original title? “The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.”  The first two lines?

                                Over the river and through the wood,
                                To grandfather’s house we go

[Don’t believe me?  See for yourself:

The search led to another unexpected discovery—an answer to why the poem has come down to us in only six verses, when apparently there were many more.  John Greenleaf Whittier is to be blamed (or thanked) for that.  The poem only became well-known after Whittier included it in a volume on poetry for children, which he edited in 1871, Child Life: A Collection of Poems.  Whittier, as editor, would have scaled the poem back to six verses.  Printed below, is the poem, edited by Whittier, known to us today.  Happy Thanksgiving.   


                            Over the river and through the wood,
                            To grandfather’s house we go;* 
                            The horse knows the way
                            To carry the sleigh
                            Through the white and drifted snow.

                            Over the river and through the wood—
                            Oh, how the wind does blow!
                            It stings the toes
                            And bites the nose
                            As over the ground we go.

                            Over the river and through the wood,
                            To have a first-rate play.
                            Hear the bells ring,
                            Hurrah for Thanksgiving-Day!

                            Over the river and through the wood
                            Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
                            Spring over the ground,
                            Like a hunting hound!
                            For this is Thanksgiving-Day.

                            Over the river and through the wood, 
                            And straight through the barn-yard gate.
                            We seem to go
                            Extremely slow,—
                            It is so hard to wait!

                            Over the river and through the wood—
                            Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
                            Hurrah for the fun!
                            Is the pudding done?
                            Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

                                     L. Maria Child.

*Or “grandmother’s house.”  They lived together. They were married.