Thanksgiving in 1830’s New England

Having been a volunteer at a local living history museum since 2011 has been the best on-going history class I’ve ever taken. While, in recent posts, I have lamented not being able to learn many of the antiquated skills that make the museum such a popular attraction–for both tourists and local folks alike, I cannot deny the value of those history lessons. I shared a condensed version of this in the dealership’s newsletter.

In 1838, the year that the museum roughly interprets, Thanksgiving was the big holiday. This was the time where, if you could, you went home for the holiday (note the singular here). The Christmas celebrations we enjoy today were unheard of. Christmas was, by the puritanical standards that still governed much of New England in the 1830’s, a papist celebration and considered idolatrous and unscriptural by Puritan fathers. That’s a tough one for most folks to wrap their mind around. But nowhere in the Bible does it give an actual date for Christ’s birth. Therefore, the Puritan religion, with its strict adherence to biblical truths, did not mark December 25th as anything out of the ordinary. The museum has many diaries and journals where the author’s entries mark this day as business as usual. And, while the Puritan religion had died out by 1838, the influence was still felt. The Christmas celebrations we enjoy today were enjoyed in the big cities, like New York or Philadelphia, but it would be close to another decade before they moved into this part of the country.

That being said, families gathered together in celebration of Thanksgiving. This was the start of our great nation, a symbol of the fellowship between our Native American neighbors and our Pilgrim forefathers. As President Abraham Lincoln would not officially mark the 3rd Thursday of November as Thanksgiving in the United States for a few decades later, the actual date for this celebration tended to vary as it was usually the mayor of a town that declared the holiday.

Much like today, housewives began their baking for this holiday weeks in advance. And, before anyone asks, because this is a time long before refrigeration, they stored their baked goods in the top dresser drawers of upstairs’ bedchambers…where they froze solid. Local dry goods’ stores would receive in rare treats, such as raisins and cinnamon, well in advance of the holiday. And, as raisins were not pitted in those days, young children would be set to helping by removing those pits, one raisin at a time. While we think of turkey as the main entree, duck, goose and other wild game were also common. Incidentally, venison would have been rare; New England of the 1830’s was mostly farmland, taking over much of the habitat, so that deer were few and far between; we have more forests today in New England than they did in 1838 due to clear cutting and the 11-14 cords of wood needed by each household just for cooking (isn’t that a kick in the head?). As so many would gather, those not seen for the better part of the year, many and myriad special dishes were set to table to enjoy together.

Interestingly, because so many loved ones would gather together in their Sunday best, a church service would lead off the holiday, and so many special entrees graced this feast, celebrating weddings was also a common practice at Thanksgiving. Housewives would simply add a few extra entrees and a special cake for the bride and groom.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t anticipate any weddings today. And, as a pescetarian, I won’t be eating any turkey, but I always look forward to the wide array of my favorite vegetables: turnip, squash and green bean casserole, and a healthy slice of pumpkin pie.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone! May God bless you & keep you!

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