Saturday, November 25, 2023

Over the River and Through the Woods—American Thanksgiving Song. Murfin’s 2023-’24 Winter Holiday Music Festival

Here in the Northwest Boonies of the Chicago Metroplex we are having our first outbreak of cold weather and we are breaking out real winter coats for the first time.  We expect our first measurable snow on Sunday—maybe two inches on the grass and self-shoveling on the driveway and sidewalks.  Snow at the end of November is not unheard of in these parts, but tends to melt away quickly.  We never have the kind of deep snow cover that would have allowed a sleigh ride to Grandfathers for Thanksgiving.  But things were different in the Little Ice Age that gripped North America during and after the American Revolution.

That’s why the poem Lydia Maria Child published in 1844 and titled A Boys Thanksgiving Day and was later set to music often ends up being sung as a Christmas song.  After all, it is about snow and a sleigh—they gotta be going to Grandfather’s for Christmas, right?

Wrong.  Child was recalling her own childhood when snow indeed laid deep and thick on the hills and ice froze streams in New England by mid-November and a sleigh was the vehicle of choice. She could recall the bitter and long winters of what climatologists now recognize as the Little Ice Age. 

During the Little Ice Age rivers, canals, even sea ice froze solid for months a time.  Ice skating became a diversion in Holland.

The Little Ice Age is estimated to have lasted from about 1350 to 1850 and to have been particularly severe in Europe and Eastern North America.  It began after an extended period of warming from 950 to 1250 AD known as the Medieval Warm Period when a mild climate peaked about 1100 AD a few degrees below the average temperatures of the last twenty years.  During that time Mediterranean agricultural practices extended deep into Europe.  The plunge into the deep freeze destroyed much of that agricultural base and caused widespread famines and suffering.

There were variations of temperatures during the Little Ice Age, including short spurts of mild warming.  But especially sever winters clustered around 1300, 1650, 1750, and the last around 1850.  Some experts extend the period almost to the 20th Century to include the epic blizzard years of 1886-87.

The Little Ice Age was truly devastating.  Greenland was completely depopulated of its Norse settlers and Iceland lost half of its population.  Famines in Scandinavia claimed at least 10% of the populations, much higher in remote northern farming villages.  Unreliable growing seasons and hunger weakened populations and made them much more susceptible to death during the periodic plagues that swept Europe.  In densely populated cities like London death tolls were staggering.

Winter sea ice extended for miles around Ireland and regularly closed major ports.  Great rivers, including the Thames in London, the Rhone and Rhine froze solid.  A Swedish army was able to march across the sea to attack Copenhagen.  In the Low Countries rivers, canals, ponds and marshes froze solid every winter encouraging a culture that included ice skating.  Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists depicted it all in many winter scenes and landscapes—a type of painting virtually unknown during warmer periods.

In North America crop failures helped encourage competing and often warring tribes to create political alliances to regulate hunting grounds, which became much more important as crops failed and even to share surpluses in good years.  Thus, the Iroquois Confederacy was born as well as smaller alliances of tribes scattered along the eastern seaboard from Chesapeake Bay north to modern Nova Scotia.

When the folks we call the Pilgrims landed on the rocky shores of New England they were seeking not just relief from religious persecution, but a warmer and more hospitable climate than their refuge in frigid Holland They were aiming at balmy Virginia but fate and bad weather deposited them in the equally grim north.  They and their soon to arrive Puritan neighbors suffered in the early years and their colonies only really took off in a brief warming period.

Deep snow often blanketed New England and Mid-Atlantic areas.

The American Revolution was fought largely during one of the worst of the cold spells and the weather often played a critical role in the fighting.  If there had not been plenty of snow on the ground and frozen rivers, for instance, Henry Knox could not have hauled all of that heavy artillery from the fort at West Point to George Washingtons troops besieging Boston without oxen dragging the cannons overland on sledges.  Washington and the Continental Army famously endured the heavy snow and bitter cold of Valley Forge, but the same bitter weather kept British forces cooped up in New York and other port cities and not wrecking havoc in the countryside.

By the time of the Revolution, New Englanders had established a late autumn Thanksgiving tradition as an alternative holiday to Christmas which they despised as Papist on one hand and an orgy of pagan revelry on the other.  The celebration had nothing to do with the dinner party shared between the Pilgrims and local natives which had been long forgotten.  It had originated in local proclamations of fasting and prayer for delivery from the Indians after King Philips War and for local bountiful harvests.  Fasting eventually gave way to feasting in a natural harvest festival

Dates varied depending on local proclamations, but were generally in late November on some other day than the Sabbath or Wednesdays when mid-week evening prayers were held.

The celebrations came only after not only all the crops were in, which was typically weeks earlier, but after the snow had fallen and the long hunts for deer, turkey, and other game were completed—the snow aided in tracking and the absence of leaves made seeing game easier—and storms made fishing for cod too dangerous.  Larders were full and men, at least, were idleWomen, of course were expected to prepare and cook the feast.  As younger children who had no hope of inheriting the farm typically moved away to find land of their own, it became customary for them to return to the ancestral homestead for the feast.  And in an era when roads were bad and often impassable, the frozen ground, snow, and rivers made travel even long distances easier.

So many a family bundled up, climbed in the sleigh and headed for the old folks home whether it was just down the road or even days away. 


Child on the porch of her Wayland home in the post-Civil War era.

Those were the happy days Child was recalling.  But she was also 14 years old in the famous Year Without Sunshine.    1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies and other volcanic activity had spewed enough ash high into the atmosphere   to shield the Sun from the Northern Hemisphere for most of the year.  Freezing temperatures and snow were recorded every month in New England.  Crops failed and record shattering snow came that fall.  Famine lurked that year, but could not completely discourage the traditional trek home for Thanksgiving.


The cover of one of the many editions of Child's most famous poem re-titled Over the River and Through the Woods.  Although she might have preferred being remembered for her abolition and women's rights work, as a passionate advocate of children's literature, I don't think she would be entirely disappointed.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the seasonal song which is now just about the only thing Child is remembered for?  The words to the Thanksgiving song Over the River and Through the Woods were originally published in 1844 as a poem A Boys Thanksgiving Day in Volume II of Child’s collection Flowers for Children.  I could find no attribution for who set the popular poem to the now familiar tune.

Little chance of a sleigh ride this year in the lower 48 outside the Rocky Mountains and High Plains.  But  if you lived there, just could break out your sleigh and you can get to Grandma’s pumpkin pie.

 Along the way you could sing the song based on Child’s poem.  If you want to use the original words, here they are:

                                                A Boys Thanksgiving Day

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,

To Grandfather’s house away!

We would not stop for doll or top,

For ‘tis Thanksgiving Day.


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—

And straight through the barnyard gate,

We seem to go extremely slow,

It is so hard to wait!


Over the river, and through the wood—

When Grandmother sees us come,

She will say, “O, dear, the children are here,

Bring a pie for everyone.”


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!



 —Lydia Maria Child

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