For many New England inhabitants, Thanksgiving was associated with family gatherings, harvest feasts and, due to particularly cold northern winters of the time, with snow and sleigh rides.The concept of a late autumn celebration expanded along with the young country. As streams of American settlers left the Northeast for frontier territory further west, they carried with them memories of family get-togethers and lavish holiday spreads. One such fond reminiscence, “Over the River and Through the Wood”, has become ingrained in our popular culture.

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!

The words are now most familiar to Americans as a children’s song, equally popular at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Modern holiday travel involves airplanes and automobiles, not horse-pulled sleighs. But the universally felt emotions the poem describes -- the pleasure of frosty air and freshly fallen snow, the joy of gathering with family members, the anticipation of a lovingly-made abundance of holiday foods -- are still very much with us nearly 170 years after its creation.

ImageOriginally entitled “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day,” the poem was penned in 1844 by Massachusetts resident Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). In a nostalgic remembrance of her own childhood holidays, she harkens back to an even earlier time at the beginning of the 19th century, when she and her family made the trip to her grandparents’ farm for Thanksgiving.

Still standing in Medford, Massachusetts, Child’s grandparents’ residence is today called the Paul Curtis House, or just “Grandfather’s House”. Much enlarged and given a Imagetwo-story Ionic portico by shipbuilder Paul Curtis in about 1839, the simple original farmhouse remains at the back of the structure. A wooded area, undoubtedly less thick than in Child’s time, still separates the farmhouse from the nearby Mystic River, which is most likely the river mentioned in the poem. Purchased and restored by Tufts University in 1976, the Paul Curtis House is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This modern-day interactive aerial map shows the house, the river, and the small grove of trees that separates them. It gives a sense of just how much more densely populated the location has become in 200 years' time.

If Child is remembered at all, it is for creating the lyrics to a favorite children's song, still sung today. But she deserves recognition for her many other accomplishments as well. She was one of the first women to earn a living as a writer, in an era when authorship was considered an un-ladylike pursuit. A fervent abolitionist and political activist well ahead of her time, she championed the rights of African Americans, native Americans and women.

Photo Credits:
Thumbnail photo: Currier & Ives, "American Homestead Winter"; in the public domain
Lydia Maria Child, from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
Paul Curtis House, from Wikimedia Commons