Thanksgiving The Biography of an American Holiday
James W. Baker

University of New Hampshire Press, 2009

Bliss's critical poetical description of a New England Thanksgiving in 1815 provides us with a panorama of the contemporary holiday traditions and activities—both pious and regrettably sordid and indulgent—that would serve as the foundation for the later evolution of this very American holiday, long before football and autumnal Pilgrim imagery were part of the holiday's modern composition.

Appendix I: Bliss, Henry. Thanksgiving, A Poem, In Two Parts.
Pittsfield: Phinæhas Allen, 1815, pp 2 – 11.


Behold! Where pleasure bids her votaries rise,
Wide as the Genius of Thanksgiving flies,
O’er “Massachusetts’ hundred hills” she calls
For sports and feasts, for riots and for balls,
From hobbling age to sprightly childhood steer,
And lists her thousands in her gay career.
Such daily works of preparation made,
Such ways and means of luxury display’d,
To fancy’s eye ‘twould certainly appear
That Nature had her frolicks once a year;
Or that the states by fits ‘twas plain,
Had lost their reason and become insane.

All other business now lay aside,
Save what for this best holiday provide,
While toiling thousands in the work are found,
Butchers and cooks and tailors hurried round,
As if ‘twas meant on this auspicious day,
To reach the goal where every pleasure lay;
Or that its end had only been designed
To feast the body, not improve the mind;
Or set apart to see who most outvied
In scenes of vain extravagance and pride.
Not so the brutal tribes, poor harmless race,
Whose blood must pay for Massachusetts grace,
To them the day rolled on by gloomy fate,
Is ushered in by slaughter through the state.
E’en now I hear, or seem to hear from far,
The mingled groans from this New-England war !
Borne in the breeze the cries of dying swine,
The bleeding lambkins and the slaughtered kine,
By hecatombs they tumble through the state,
Each hour is murder and each moment fate.
Geese, turkies, ducks and pullets now are found
In fluttering heaps laid gasping on the ground.
No town nor village known, or proud or mean,
But now takes part in this inglorious scene;
No rank, no family, so high or low,
But makes a feast or makes a festive show,
Proud wealth contributes to the cheering day,
And full-fed poverty looks plump and gay,
For every cottage boy with hurried pace,
Bears home  his offering with a smiling face,
And fancies while he muses on his way,
Some happy scene to crown th’ approaching day.

The Cookery now goes on, the baking’s laid,
And many a mammoth pie and pudding’s made,
Roast meat and gingerbread and custards rare,
Are seen and smelt and tasted everywhere,
Plumb-cakes and sweet-meats of all kinds abound,
The country floats with dainties fit for kings,
An inundation of the choicest things.

See the poor family whose toil and care
Can scarce procure life’s comforts through the year,
Ev’n for one rich repast on this blest day,
Will turn and shift and straiten every way,
Oft when the groaning oven is releas’d,
And cakes and pastries on the table plac’d,
The children snatch them, while with bawling notes
They cram the red-hot victuals down their throats.
Dogs too and cats are gorg’d with flesh and bones,
The day brings surfeits and the night brings groans.

Some now from country shops or markets come,
Bring much fresh news with spice and brandy home,
The farmer thriving in these plodding climes,
Raves loud against the hardness of the times,
The merchant who his double profit takes,
Exclaims against th’ unrighteous price he makes,
Or while he slyly feeds Columbia’s foes,
Grows rich and fattens on his country’s woes,
Condemns her rulers, feigning to abhor
The dire effects of an unrighteous war.

But see the long anticipated day
That bears its thousands down the world’s broad way,
Again arrives its splendors to reveal,
To save its custards and its cleric zeal,
And while its brilliant crowds it now arrays,
Far more of pride than piety displays;
Too many seen at church now know no more
The preacher’s words than what they knew before;
Three-fourths at least some other object calls,
To see new bonnets and to talk of balls!
Some go for news, and some to learn the price
Of beef and cheese, or when they’ll have a rise;
Some go to hear the Parson preach and pray,
Some find no faith in what he has to say.
New gowns, new coats, new fashions now appear,
Pride in the front and envy in the rear;
The day is short, the meeting is soon done,
The worship closes much as it begun,
Save here and there some worthier being found,
Urg’d on by duty and with virtue crown’d,
Who sees through all creation spread abroad,
The vast exuberant bounties of a God!
Sees him in Providence our views above,
Or hails his mercies in Redeeming Love;
Sees Him all good, all glorious in His ways,
And feels his bosom glow with love and praise,
Ev’n while he views His kind indulgent hand,
That showers His blessings on our guilty land,
The sacred theme while pleasing to pursue,
He sings of mercies and of judgments too;
Sees how long fed by heaven’s peculiar care,
Her wayward sons His blessings could not bear,
Like Israel murmuring, ‘till a righteous God
Permits their wrongs and sends His scourging rod,
Suffers their guilty foes with haughty scorn
Their wealth to plunder and their rights to spurn.

From church dismiss’d where pleasure leads the way,
Her votaries follow and her crowds obey,
Let loose to pastimes, mirth and social joy,
Balls, feasts and visits now their hours employ,
And oft the revel roar still louder rings,
While Folly fiddles on her lowest strings;
And much too oft in taverns gather’d round,
The impious order of the day is found,
Breaks out from vulgar groups who there resort,
Loud raving riot and delirious sport,
The laugh, the shout, the oath blasphemous heard,
The wreck of morals and the God unfear’d

Thus ‘tis in this or some such impious way,
Vain thoughtless thousands keep Thanksgiving Day;
Thus o’er the banquet and the flowing bowl,
Deform the nobler beauties of the soul;
Carousing at the taverns and the feast,
Unconscious as the viands which they taste;
Not e’en one thought of gratitude they show
To Him from whom their numerous blessings flow.
Not so the circles where the expanding heart
More polish’d scenes of pleasure can impart,
And such there are in every country town,
Of virtuous habits and of fair renown,
Whose minds unwarp’d by dissipation’s fires,
No low pursuit nor vulgar theme inspires,
Form’d for society that’s more refin’d,
Which mends the morals and improves the mind,
Their souls arise on philosophic wing,
From man, from nature, up to Heaven’s King;
And while they soar all earth-born themes above,
Hail Him the fountain of Eternal Love !
To such the day a nobler banquet brings,
To such it opens all its sacred springs,
Nor this alone, all days alike impart,
His gifts and claim the homage of the heart.
Or if adverting to their country’s cause,
Its wrongs, its insults, and its righteous laws,
With liberal candor they the theme pursue,
Nor hate the friend who differs from their view.

Thus round the social fire their evening hours
Improve their being and exalt their powers,
While trifling crowds in revelry delight,
And plunge in giddy pleasures of the night,
‘Till morn return’d in gay amusement leads
The sister holyday that now succeeds.
Dancing goes on, no care their bliss controls,
Throng’d ball-rooms shake while soft’ning music rolls;
Now beaux and fops so modish and so fine,
Like insects fluttering in the sun-beams shine,
While swarming belles in buxom charms so gay,
Swim in the dance and flutter in the play,
While some in cards and dice their hours employ,
Or in carousals catch the passing joy;
Love, Courtships, Weddings too are carried on,
And much of social visiting is done,
And oft where malice marks her victim’s doom,
The slanderous tale runs whispering around the room,
And oft some flight of wit the humor pours,
'Till all the table with loud laughter roars.
Now the rich banquet spreads its dainty store,
'Till hungry Epicures can eat no more;
Now every child through all the country round,
With puddings, cakes, and gingerbread is crown’d;
And many a slattern’s brat may now be seen,
Who ev’n for once a year is scrubbed and clean.

Lo ! arm’d for sport, whose whole troop of men and boys,
Elate and merry with expected joys,
Now to th’ appointed rendezvous repair,
To form jovial shooting matches there.
At measur’d distance plac’d and tied with care,
The feather’d victim bides the unequal war;
‘Till one more skillful or more lucky found,
Lays the poor prisoner bleeding on the ground,
And in proud triumph bears his game away,
Whose price, perhaps, a dozen scarce could pay.
At once another fowl his place supplies,
And many a marksman now his utmost tries,
'Till one whose ball bears life and liberty,
Cuts off the string and sets the captive free.
Loud is the shout and much the noise
Of men, and barking dogs, and running boys,
'Till worried out the panting game they take,
And tie the unwilling victim to the stake;
'Till some sharp shooter draws the mark so nigh,
They all declare they see the feathers fly!
Again they run and search to find the wound,
Inspect the body, but no blood is found;
Save where some knavish elf with knife or pin,
By one sly scratch cuts through the tender skin,
Then searching closely tells a dozen lies,
And roundly swears his bullet won the prize.
Thus pass their hours as custom leads the way,
‘Till night brings home the trophies of the day.
Here those are found so scrupulously nice,
Who fly from cards, from billiards and from dice,
Who at this sport their money will advance,
And make no conscience at such games of chance.

Some whom the pleasure of the Chase invite,
Whom woods and fields and mountain-scenes delight,
With eager strides the wonted game in view ,
The wily Fox and Turkey now pursue,
O’re hills and vales, through swamps and thickets run,
Nor quit the pastime ‘till the setting sun;
‘Till night returns them in a sober mood,
More tir’d and tamer than the game pursu’d.
Oft times whole troops of chosen hunters make
The squirrel-hunt the pleasures they partake;
Some bottled bet, to cheer their drooping frames,
Waits ‘till the night the victory proclaims;
Arm’d with their guns, with axes, dogs and poles,
To rout their game and drive from their holes,
At early dawn they to the woodland stray.
Eager to win the honors of the day,
Round hills and plains they spread the parish o’er,
Search every wood and every swamp explore,
As if (their feats so eager to display)
Their Country’s fate depended on the day!
Loud is the noise of many a dog and gun,
And great exploits by many a marksman’s done,
Squirrels and birds now fall like setting bees,
As if they hail’d by hundreds from the trees;
Or if by dealing death in every place,
They now resolv’d t’ exterminate their race;
So fast the guns keep up th’ incessant roar,
This way and that way and a hundred more,
From every copse and hedge, both near and far,
As though th’ woods sustain’d an Indian War.
No stop, no stay, they no have time to make,
Nor food nor rest but few afford to take,
Through cold and wet, through frost and miry bogs,
Through brush and brambles, over rocks and logs,
Some run, some creep, some skulk behind the stumps,
Some fire erect, some sitting on their rumps,
And many an eager youth with erring eye,
Fires as he runs and helps his game to fly;
And many a hasty hunter through mistakes,
Squirrels of limbs and birds of brushwood makes;
Claps up his gun, lets fly a thundering shot,
Yet sees his game unrouted from the spot;
Again he loads, resolved to do his best,
Aims with precision at the victim’s breast,
Who still unhurt, nor lead can kill or scare,
Nor legs nor wings are seen to move a hair;
Surprise and wonder now the hunters seize,
Some think ‘tis witchcraft got among the trees!
‘Till one who looks with less deceitful eyes.
 Finds out the cheat and points them where it lies.
Thus they go on and spend the sportive day,
And many s worthless beast and bird they slay,
'Till night’s dark shades spread wide the woodland o’er,
And bids them now pursue the chase no more,
While to the appointed place they all repair,
To know their luck and find refreshments there;
Some chosen hands now counts the piles of game,
And oft, while counting, find both wild and tame,
Which makes the talk and clamor run so high,
All peace and concord for a season fly!
Now round the clutter’d hall huge piles display
The various feats and trophies of the day!
There birds and quadrupeds of every kind,
With which our native fields and woods are lin’d,
Squirrels and hares, with land and water fowls,
Woodcocks and ducks, and partridges and owls!
A motley groupe, all clotted with their gore,
In mingled heaps lie rang’d along the floor;
Now round the merry hall the liquor plies,
And many a jest and many a banter flies,
And many a tale too big to be believ’d,
Of wondrous feats by guns and dogs achiev’d,
And oft the sprightly dance or social play,
Concludes the fond diversions of the day.

But this is far more honorable sport,
Than that display’d where gambling sots resort;
They who their time, their money and their fame,
Their neighbor’s interest, and their friends good name,
All in one frantic hour advanc’d at stake,
The bane of families and fortune’s wreck,
Or when vile Tipplers midnight homeward drives,
Reeling to curse their suppers and their wives;
Or when unblest with charity and love,
Sectarians loud each others creed disprove,
Making Religion  run such wild extremes,
Their zeal a burlesque on the Gospel seems;
While far from such the Gospel spirit flies,
And Love, and Charity, and Union dies.
Or when associate Infidels combine
To spurn all subjects sacred and divine;
When to break loose from prejudices strong,
And systems which have fool’d mankind so long.
All sense and reason they calmly quit,
And scoffs and censures substitute for wit,
God’s holy word deriding but to show
What more by reason’s purer light they know,
As if their doctrine more of comfort spread,
Or claim’d a patent for the light it shed!
Or man could better read his Maker’s will,
In the loud tempest or the murm’ring rill,
Or searching nature find through all her reign,
How he was born to die and live again.

Or when more sober, yet disgraceful scene,
For evening plays when children oft convene,
And some old woman superstition nursed
With wonders loaded and strange horrors curs’d
Tells any a bloody tale of other times,
Of murders, goblins, ghosts and smother’d crimes!
Of haunted woods and houses, horrid sights,
Of headless bodies and village frights;
Or while their hair with terror stands upright,
And every child begins to hate the night,
Changes the theme which equal horrors cause,
To tales of witch-craft and its secret laws;
Tells how in days of yore strange pranks were play’d,
Which men transformed and parishes dismay’d,
How many miles beneath a pond’rous load,
Chang’d to a Horse, a neighbor had been rode;
How Imps at night, through key-holes us’d to glide,
When barns were burnt and neighbors cattle died,
How lights on masts or trees was seen to glare,
How Cats and Partridges by silver bled,
In the same hour old women were found dead.

Or thence descending to more modern days,
With Goblin tales her auditors dismays;
How Maids bewitch’d, and claw’d by tooth and nail,
Frightened whole towns and made the doctors pale;
When stubborn spinning wheels refus’d to go,
In spite of all that human strength could do;
Or how when charms were us’d to lay the gloom,
Good books and bibles flew about the room.
Such are the frightful tales too often told,
Which children hear ‘till ev’n their blood runs cold;
Ev’n in this friendly age of boasted light,
That long has been beam’d o’er superstition’s night,
Ev’n on this soil that boasts of cultur’d minds,
Where no Magnalia modern reason binds,
By far too oft some village wonder flies,
Which reason combats and truth denies.

O ! were the Day to its just ends appli’d,
And sober reason left to be our guide,
Were Heaven’s high King the object we ador’d,
His gifts acknowledg’d and his grace implor’d,
Soon would the Pulpit cease its factious roar,
And party rage His altars stain no more,
Nor would the time its thoughtless crowds decoy,
In custom’s road to catch the sensual joy.
Then would the Muse with rapture and delight,
Hail the glad day and in its work unite,
While solemn anthems of resounding praise
Tun’d her fond lyre a nobler song to raise.

O ! could she now on More’s exalted wing,
In loftier strains a worthier tribute bring,
Here chosen numbers while they flow’d along,
Her God and Country should inspire here song.
Nor would she stoop, tho’ fortune led the way,
To flatter knaves, or Freedom’s cause betray;
Fearless alike of censure or applause,
She scorns to fly her bleeding country’s cause;
Nor on the wings of fancy will she rove
Beyond the bounds which justice must approve.

O ! while here western sons Columbia sees
With active zeal obey here prompt decrees,
While fearless now to quell here haughty foes,
Here bravest blood a holy offering flows!
Shall this extraneous soil our sires disgrace,
While its peace parties nurse a traitorous race!
Combine to lay their country’s freedom low,
Ev’n at her vitals aim the deadly blow!
League to dissolve her Union’s sacred chain,
Pollute with impious hands her hallowed fane,
And while they spurn their country’s righteous laws,
Cherish her foes and aid the Briton’s cause,
Or ‘gainst the patriot who obeys her call,
With frenzied zeal prolong th’ cleric brawl!
Here on these once regenerate climes
The Priest absolves the venal Briton’s crimes,
Defiles the altar where sedition’s fires
With pious rage he kindles and inspires !
Hears, while regardless of his country’s moans,
The savage war song and the ocean’s groans!
Ev’n while the hall of legislation shows
Hate to her cause and friendship to her foes;
War’s crimson wave thro’ western climes that roars,
Beats soft and harmless round these eastern shores.

But He who first ordain’d Columbia’s laws
Will still support and aid her righteous cause;
‘Twas then our fathers, fearless in the field,
Knew how to die but knew not how to yield,
‘Till all was gain’d their country’s cause requir’d,
‘Till Freedom triumph’d and the world admir’d
‘Tis the same cause, as glorious and as just,
in the same arm with confidence we trust;
‘Twas God himself, omnipotent and kind,
Our favor’s land for Liberty design’d,
Here taught each patriot sage the liberal plan,
Here wak’d the noblest energies of man!
Here far from all the empty pride of kings,
Open’s a new and happier scene of things!
Bade the red sea of tyranny retreat
To distant regions where its bounds were set;
Gave to the view a  paradise regain’d,
A world of treasures in itself contain’d,
Where favor’d man no proud distinction knows,
Save what on merit or on virtue grows;
Lo ! free as light its common blessing sheds,
Nor claims protection from vain man to draw,
Nor props from erring codes of human law,
Shedding its influence like the gentle dew,
God its great author and protector too.

Let not the christian build his faith so low
As that foundation pride and avarice show,
Nor think whatever hypocrites pretend,
Vile man the great Jehovah’s works can mend;
Tho’ kings and states too often interfere,
Mark Heav’n’s own lines and legal barriers rear,
He who maintains his own Almighty cause,
Confounds the builders and rejects their laws!
Sees His own kingdom thro’ the nations shine,
Its honors, laws and precepts all divine,
His gospel opening all its boundless springs,
Seeks not the aid of cabinets nor kings,
To man no pow’r to legislate is given,
It flows in living streams direct from Heaven,
Spreads thro’ the world wide as its gifts unfold,
Its hopes immortal and its joys untold!
From time’s sad brow dispels th’ involving gloom,
Its brighter splendors dawning o’er the tomb;
Gives wand’ring man on faith’s bold wings to rise
O’er nature’s clogs and hail his kindred skies !
Or while it guides him to the blest abode,
Marks his mild way thro’ virtue’s sacred road,
Embracing in his comprehensive view,
His God, his neighbor, and his country too,

Yes, let the deist argue all he can,
The christian only is the happy man,
Not he who impiously assumes the name
But he whose heart that character can claim,
Who builds no hopes of Heav’n’s eternal joys,
On that which reason or which truth destroys,
Nor thinks his duty to God is shown
In the dull round of modes and forms alone,
Or that his neighbor’s creed, while bound to hate,
Deserves the exploding thunders of the state;
Nor he the mask of piety that feigns,
For worldly honors or for worldly gains,
The meek-eyed christian, who pursues the road
To peace and joy, to glory and to God,
With honest aim and nobler motives flies
The worldling’s views and hypocrite’s disguise,
Feels Heaven’s own breath his constant bosom fan,
Which glows with love to God and love to man.