When I first read “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” by Louisa May Alcott in her collection of short stories entitled Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, I was—truth be told—unmoved.
But truth is often painful … and embarrassing.
The temptations to label this little-known episode from the well-known author of Little Women as cliché and cloying are quite real. They are, nevertheless, temptations and ought to be spurned roundly as such.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Nowadays, there are few things more suspicious than a dull story by a decent storyteller. More often than not it hides a mystery worthy of pursuit, for such mysteries are the very ones which elude the dim consciousness of a people blinded and bloated by banalities puffed up and passed off as Entertainment.
It is incredible how difficult it has become to satisfy the expectations of the modern consumer. As prosperity has progressed, the capacity to be satiated by prosperity has regressed in a direct proportion. In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” melancholy Jaques calls such “wealth and ease” nothing more than “a stubborn will to please,” and speaks rightly. The more society falls into this category of culture, the more difficult it is to be thankful for things. How can thanks be given if there is never any relaxation of ritual consumption? As William Wordsworth laments, and laments rightly:
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Yet, as Jaques and William sigh under the greenwood tree, there comes that bold outlaw men call Robin Hood to remind a surfeiting world, “Better a crust with content than honey with a sour heart.” In these words is the source of all thanksgiving, and Louisa May Alcott knew well the sound of this wisdom. Her rustic tale is a homage—though it has become more of a eulogy—to all that America has forgotten to be thankful for. The centerpiece of which is the truth that the simple pleasures of the poor are richer than the pleasures of the rich because they are fewer.
“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” is both effective and affective. It transports the willing reader to a time that is difficult to imagine; but is the solid source of a people who have forgotten how to give thanks partly because they have forgotten who they are, and partly because they have forgotten what it means to live. The narrative is a warm memory of simpler, tougher times, when happiness was hard earned and people were grateful to have it. In these few short pages, Alcott hearkens back to long-past pioneering ages of crop and cattle, with barnyards, rough-hewn timber, and stone chimneys that smoke like patriarchal pipes. All alone, this little story embodies the greatest criticism of modern improvement, which questions whether progress can be truly called progress if its result is reminiscence for the way things were. There is a quality about the old-fashioned that the new-fangled can never mass-produce.
The opening sentences present a panorama of realities many Americans have grown estranged to, inhibiting their ability to give thanks:
Sixty years ago, up among the New Hampshire hills, lived Farmer Bassett, with a house full of sturdy sons and daughters growing up about him. They were poor in money, but rich in land and love, for the wide acres of wood, corn, and pasture land fed, warmed, and clothed the flock, while mutual patience, affection, and courage made the old farm-house a very happy home.
The Bassett family is preparing for Thanksgiving Day when news of a tragedy comes to their door. As the parents rush off to attend to the distant misfortune, their eight able-bodied children are left to mind the household. Together they decide to assuage the burden of the unexpected blow by completing the preparations for Thanksgiving dinner all on their own. What they imagine as the result and what actually results serves as the point that the story turns around to deliver its central message: that hardship and grief are necessary components of thanksgiving. Happiness can only be truly appreciated in contrast to sorrow, and plentitude can only rejoice after dearth.
As Chaucer put it, “Glad poverty’s an honest thing, that’s plain,” for so do poverty and merriment bring out the truth about people and things.
This important experience is becoming increasingly difficult in a world insulated against discomfort and deficiency, overrun as it is by laborsaving devices and the obsession over convenience. Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” provides a brief retreat to the heritage of human culture in the United States—which is the basis of all our thanksgiving. Without authentic labor and trial, there can be no authentic gratitude. Without some struggle for survival, without striving against the elements, without connection to the earth and cooperation within a family dynamic, there can be no true sense of thankfulness.
The domestic meal is the expression of this thanksgiving. The American meal is a sign and celebration of the gratitude that follows and flows from those labors of love and life that bind people together. This story about country siblings zealously and childishly upholding the sanctity of the family meal in a time of travail is a powerful icon of what all Americans should ever be thankful for—that, as a people united by the hallowed ties of family and country, we have the strength to smile in the face of tribulation and yet be thankful for the good things of heaven and earth. Thanksgiving Day is a day of enjoyment (in Latin, fruor, “I enjoy;” related to “fruitfulness”)—not a day of mere pleasures. The Great Dinner should heap high on the household board together with that type of plenteous cheer that is well grounded in the sweat and suffering that begets true enjoyment. Thanksgiving is the fruit of toil.
This is the heart and origin of Thanksgiving Day; and it is a pattern that is slipping away from our sensibilities. The idea and ethics of meals is deteriorating into a hurried and harried pre-packaged affair punctuated by interruptions. If anything can help reverse the trend, it is those old-fashioned approaches to food and fellowship. Wives baking the bread. Husbands brining the bird. Children underfoot as they set silverware. Industry. Worry. Prayer. Laughter. Conversation. Song and story.
Thanksgiving Dinner is the sacrament of the family. “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” brings this mystery to the fore, lest we forget how to give thanks and why.
Editor’s note: The image above of the first Thanksgiving was painted by NC Wyeth.