Over the River and Through the Wood: Thanksgiving, Pilgrimage and Gratitude

Over the River and Through the Wood: Thanksgiving, Pilgrimage and Gratitude

As I make my Thanksgiving trek – over the river and through the wood (such as it is), I’m thinking about pilgrimage and gratitude. I think about the idealism of that song, the aspirations we hold in our hearts as we plan our gatherings. And I think about courage in the face of adversity.

Thanksgiving, the first one, was celebrated by a group of pilgrims grateful to have survived another year. They gathered in the woods together with those who’d helped them make it. They gave thanks and then they turned their faces to the year ahead.

And so, annually, and according to our national mythology, the roadways and the skies fill up with us, each making our way to our own grace-filled celebrations. Each of us embarking on our journeys riding on our own idealism and hope.

We make our pilgrimage through time and place. We gather and we eat and we give thanks for having survived another year.

Lydia Maria Child’s nostalgic poem is our Thanksgiving anthem. It was written in tribute to childhood gatherings at her Grandfather’s farm in New England. The house, once situated in the ‘wood’ is now owned by Tufts University and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s in Medford, Massachusetts specifically, near the Mystic River.

In all the years I’ve known this song, I’ve never associated it with an actual physical place. It seems an expression of generalized nostalgia rather than actual experience. And yet, looking at it more closely, it’s remarkably specific – and filled with assurances of continuity and grace and safety.

“The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow.”

You’ve got nothing to worry about. You are in good hands. You are on a journey that makes sense, and you will arrive.

It celebrates adversity.

“Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes, and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.”

It delights at the challenge, cheerfully leaning in, meeting it head-on.

“Hoo-ray for Thanksgiving Day!”

Lydia Maria Child faced her share of adversity. She was a pioneering writer, editor, abolitionist and literary figure. One of the first American women to support herself as a writer, she passionately championed equality and the rights of Native and African Americans. She suffered the loss of friends and livelihood numerous times throughout her long life. And she kept on going, finding new ways to share her gifts.

“Over the river and through the wood,
No matter for winds that blow;
Or if we get the sleigh upset,
Into a bank of snow.”

Nah. We’ll just head “straight through the barnyard gate” to the waiting arms of loved ones, snowball fights with our cousins, and delicious pudding and pie.

Here’s to surviving another year.

My own aspiration is to face the coming one joyfully, with grace and courage – and with an eye to the blessings of the future.

Happy Thanksgiving Day!


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