November 25, 2019

Was Jingle Bells Written for Thanksgiving?

Most people are familiar with the song "Over the River and Through the Wood." It's associated with Thanksgiving and the lyrics go like this:
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.
There are more verses but you get the idea. I always associate this song with the 1973 TV special "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" since the kids sing it at the end of the show but the song actually dates back back to 1844. It was originally a poem composed by the Massachusetts author Lydia Marie Child. Child was born in Medford and her grandfather's house still stands in that city. (These days most people sing "to grandmother's house" rather than "grandfather's house.")

Currier and Ives, Home to Thanksgiving

The song is about riding a sleigh to Thanksgiving dinner (obviously). Although snow really isn't that common in Massachusetts in November sleigh rides (and snow in general) used to be major themes for Thanksgiving.

For example "Jingle Bells," another sleigh ride song, was also written for Thanksgiving. We now associate it with Christmas but that wasn't always the case. Interestingly, "Jingle Bells" was also written in Medford - James Pierpont supposedly wrote it at that town's Simpson Tavern in 1850. I guess Medford was the place to be for songwriters in the 19th century. (Thank you Snopes for the background on "Jingle Bells.") 

Snowy Thanksgiving were also common themes in the visual arts. For example one of Currier and Ives most popular prints was titled "Home to Thanksgiving," which shows guests arriving at a wintry New England farm.

So what's up with all this snowy Thanksgiving imagery? It doesn't snow that often in November in southern New England. Well, there are two answers. First, the climate was probably colder in the 19th century. The so-called Little Ice Age was just winding down when Child and Pierpont wrote their ditties but thing were still colder than they are today. Medford probably saw more November snow than it does now. 

There's also a cultural reason for the snow imagery. As I've mentioned in other posts, people in New England did not really celebrate Christmas widely until the 19th century. The Puritans who founded New England didn't celebrate the holiday because they didn't think there was a Biblical basis for it, and that tradition stuck in New England for many years. They did celebrate Thanksgiving though. Modern Christmas celebrations often feature snowy imagery in anticipation of winter, but Thanksgiving filled this role for our New England ancestors. 

Thanksgiving was the holiday that kicked off winter, not Christmas. Also Thanksgiving was not always celebrated in November. The date was announced by the local government and in some years Thanksgiving was celebrated in December. Historian James Baker notes that Thanksgiving could be celebrated as late as December 22. So sometimes Thanksgiving really was the start of winter. 

I got a lot of this information from James Bakers book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). While explaining the snowy Thanksgiving imagery Baker also illuminated something about how we currently envision the holiday. Modern Thanksgiving imagery tends to focus on the harvest and on vibrant fall foliage but that's also a cultural creation. At least here in New England the harvest is over by late November and most of the trees have already lost their leaves. The leaves that do remain are brown and brittle. The natural world isn't looking very festive right now, which is probably why we brighten up Thanksgiving with thoughts of snowy sleigh rides or overflowing cornucopias. Whether Puritan or post-modernist we all need some holiday magic to get through the gloomy time of year. 

November 20, 2019

We Don't Celebrate Thanksgiving Because of The Pilgrims

Thanksgiving is the ultimate New England holiday. It has deep historical roots in this region and the menu, with its emphasis on turkey, pies, root vegetables, and cranberry sauce, draws upon traditional Yankee cookery. But what are the true origins of the holiday?

As children Americans are taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims. Surprisingly that is not true. It is true that in the autumn of 1621 the Plymouth colonists held a feast in honor of their first successful harvest in Massachusetts. They feasted upon corn, wild fowl, and five deer that were brought to the feast by the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and ninety of his men. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag partied for three straight days. I'm sure everyone had a big food hangover.


However, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of this harvest festival. We celebrate Thanksgiving because of Puritan religious culture. The Puritans, both in England and here in North America, did not celebrate many holidays. Christmas? No thanks. St. Valentine's Day? No way. Halloween? Definitely not! Unlike the Catholics and Anglicans they mainly celebrated what were known as 'providential holidays.' These were holidays announced to commemorate significant events in a given year. For example if things went poorly (plagues, droughts, military defeat) the Puritan leaders would announce a fast day. People were expected to abstain from eating, attend religious services and atone for their sins. 

On the other hand when things went well (military victory, end of a plague, etc.) a day of Thanksgiving would be announced. People would feast with their families, give thanks for their blessings, and (again) attend religious services. It's important to note that Thanksgiving days always occurred on weekdays, lasted for one day only, and involved religious services. It's also important to note that some years had multiple Fast days and Thanksgivings, depending on what was happening. Some years might have none at all. They were declared as needed.

Here are some examples. In 1630 the Puritans in Boston declared five fast days from April through June but only one Thanksgiving day on July 8. In Scituate there were 34 fast days from 1634 - 1653, but only nine Thanksgivings. Over time the practice of providential holidays gradually spread from Puritan New England to the other American colonies. John Hancock, leader of the Continental Congress, declared July 20, 1775 as a fast day for the thirteen colonies. In 1777 December 18 was declared a Thanksgiving day for all the colonies. When George Washington became the first president he proclaimed two Thanksgivings: November 11, 1789 and Thursday, February 19, 1795. After the Civil War Thanksgiving finally became an official, regularly occurring national holiday.

I know that's a lot of dates but the important thing is that Thanksgiving was celebrated at many times and for many different reasons. It didn't have one origin and it was not celebrated to commemorate the 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth. The Pilgrims did not become linked with Thanksgiving in popular American culture until the early 1900s, several decades after the account of their 1621 feast was rediscovered by historians in 1820. 


Here's the really strange part: technically the 1621 harvest celebration was not even a day of Thanksgiving. It didn't involve any religious services and it lasted for a full three days rather than just one. It did not meet the criteria for a Puritan Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims never called it Thanksgiving, and other Puritans wouldn't have recognized it as such. It was just a harvest celebration. 

The Plymouth harvest celebration was initially declared the first Thanksgiving by Reverend Alexander Young in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Reverend Young's claim slowly gained popularity and is now widely accepted as fact. I only learned otherwise when I read James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (2009). Baker was a historian at Plimoth Plantation who was puzzled that he couldn't find any sources connecting the Pilgrims to Thanksgiving earlier than the 19th century. When he started to research he realized why.

I love myths and legends, and even if we don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Pilgrims their story has still become an important part of the holiday. The aspirational image of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags feasting together is a model of something we should all strive for in our holiday celebration and our lives.

November 13, 2019

Folklore and Pagan Gods in The Lighthouse

My work schedule has been very busy the last few weeks, but I did manage to see The Lighthouse, the new film by Robert Eggers, the New Hampshire-born director who gave us The Witch a few years ago. My review is a little delayed but I wanted to post it anyway because The Lighthouse has some interesting New England folklore in it. Be warned: my review has a few (but not many) SPOILERS.


The plot is relatively simple. In the late 1800s, two lighthouse keepers (or wickies as they're called) arrive for duty at a lighthouse located on a small rocky island off the coast of Maine. The older wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) has served on the island many times before. His new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a former lumberjack reporting for his first stint in a lighthouse. When asked what happened to his previous assistant, Wake replies that he went insane and became convinced the lighthouse was enchanted and that merfolk haunted the island. Oh, and by the way Wake adds, never kill a seabird because they contain the souls of dead sailors.


After this ominous set-up the two men settle into a monotonous routine. As the senior lighthouse keeper Wake tends to the actual light itself, a role he guards jealously. He forbids Winslow from even entering the chamber at the top of the lighthouse and instead assigns to him all the manual labor: hauling coal, cleaning their tiny living quarters, and emptying bedpans. Winslow grows to resent his poor treatment, and his unhappiness is only compounded by a one-eyed seagull that regularly torments him. Winslow's sole pleasure is a scrimshaw mermaid he finds hidden in his mattress which fuels his sexual fantasies.

Over the course of their four-week stint the two men gradually come to an understanding, but things become complicated when the ship that is supposed to bring their replacements is delayed by a powerful storm. The men are stuck on the island. The storm lasts for weeks, and when their liquor runs out Wake and Winslow start to drink kerosene sweetened with honey. And that's when things start to get really weird...


As he did with The Witch, Robert Eggers incorporates local folklore into his film to make it feel authentic. Much of the dialogue was influenced by 19th-century writers including Sarah Orne Jewett, whose novels and stories were drawn from her experience living in Maine. I've read that Eggers used Jewett's work to craft the two distinct dialects the lighthouse keepers speak: Wake's nautical one and Winslow's inland Maine dialect. I think Willem Dafoe has the easier job, since he basically gets to talk like a pirate or Mr. Crabs from Spongebob Squarepants. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, has to speak with an accent somewhere between a classic Boston accent and the "Yah cahn't theyah from heyah" Mainer accent. He does a good job though, and I enjoyed hearing him deliver his dialogue.


One of the key plot points is Wake's admonition to never kill a seabird. This is an actual piece of nautical folklore although I think it is particularly local. Many people are familiar with it from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where a ship becomes cursed after a sailor kills an albatross. According to this article the belief was still extant as late as 1959, when sailors transporting an albatross in a cage blamed various malfunctions on the bird's accidental death.

However, there is one possible link to Maine's folklore. Maine lumberjacks believed that is was bad luck to kill gray jays (also known as gorbeys), which were small birds that frequented lumber camps. They were said to be the souls of dead lumberjacks, and hurting a gray jay would bring grave misfortune. In one tale a brutish lumberjack plucks the feathers from a gray jay on a cold winter night, thinking it is the soul of a deceased colleague that he despised. When he awakes in the morning he finds he finds himself bald, weak, and constantly pursued by stormy weather. He had plucked the feathers from his own soul.


The island in The Lighthouse may be haunted by a mermaid. I won't give away too much, but if it is she's definitely not the happy Little Mermaid variety. There are quite a few mermaid and merman stories from New England, and none of them are happy. They're much closer to horror stories than fairy tales.


One of the earliest comes from John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn, an Englishman, visited New England in 1633 and 1638. While visiting Maine some of the settlers told him about strange things that had happened to them.
One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.
Gruesome. Merfolk were generally believed to be aggressive, and an almost identical encounter with a violent merman supposedly happened in Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, according to author Edward Rowe Snow. 

Snow also claims that in 1900 a lighthouse keeper at Nantucket's Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the woods near the beach. Other people who lived nearby saw signs that something large had crawled through the underbrush and made a nest. It's kind of creepy. The plot of The Lighthouse might not be that far from reality (or at least folklore). 


There are several references to classical Greek and Roman gods in The Lighthouse. The myth of Prometheus, the Titan who was punished for stealing fire from Mount Olympus, is alluded to throughout the movie, as is the myth of Proteus, the shapeshifting Old Man of the Sea. I was also struck by this curse that Wake hurls at Winslow when the younger man complains about Wake's cooking:

WAKE: Hark, Triton, Hark! Bellow, and bid our father, the sea king, rise up from the depths, full-foul in his fury, black waves teeming with salt-foam, to smother this young mouth with pungent slime... 
(addressed directly to Winslow)... to choke ye, engorging yer organs till ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more... only when, he, crowned in cockle shells with slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard, takes up his fell, be-finn├Ęd arm -– his coral-tined trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and runs you through the gullet, bursting ye, a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now -- a nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread emperor himself, forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea... for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea.

Triton was the son and herald of the sea-god Poseidon and mermen were sometimes called 'tritons' after him (as in Josselyn's account). Wake seems to be invoking Poseidon but the 'slithering tentacled tail' also makes me think of H.P. Lovecraft's squid-like deity Cthulhu, and Eggers has said that Lovecraft's weird fiction was one of the film's inspirations.


The references to classical mythology are more prominent than the nods to Lovecraft, though, and I don't think they are out of place in a film set in New England. Many of the original English colonists were well-versed in classical mythology. For example, Thomas Morton invoked a variety of pagan gods (including Neptune, Triton, Priapus and Ganymede) at his 1628 May Day celebration in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. Of course, the Pilgrims at Plymouth weren't too happy about this and burned down his settlement, but even the die-hard Puritans of Boston and Connecticut knew their ancient gods. For example John Winthrop Jr., the son of Massachusetts's first governor, was so skilled in alchemy and medicine that his peers dubbed him the Christian Hermes. 

In 1776, four captive British sailors carved a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, for an innkeeper in Windham, Connecticut, while in 1820 Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut started a church of Bacchus and declared himself its priest. Perhaps Lyon was just really the town drunk, but in the 1800s many large New England towns also built athenaeums, libraries named after the Greek goddess of wisdom. Many athenaeums were decorated with statues of her. In downtown Boston there are also several large mercantile buildings from the late 19th century decorated with statues of Poseidon and Hermes as well. New England was founded by Puritan Christians but they brought the gods of their ancestors with them as well. We can try to escape the past but it usually catches up with us, which is one of the film's themes.


I'm the perfect audience member for The Lighthouse. I like horror movies, I like art films, and I love weird old New England stuff. I enjoyed The Lighthouse and will probably see it again. It had good actors, beautiful cinematography, sea shanties, writhing tentacles, a sinister seagull, and something gruesome in a lobster trap. 

I'm curious how audiences will react to the movie. When I saw The Witch some audience members were puzzled and angry after it ended because it was not the straightforward horror film they expected. The Lighthouse is much weirder than The Witch and even harder to categorize. Is is a dark slapstick comedy? A mythopoetic meditation on the price we pay to tell the truth? A 19th century nautical version of The Odd Couple with repressed erotic undertones? If you see it let me know what you think.

November 03, 2019

Encountering A Ghost at New Hampshire's Haunted Resort

Well, another Halloween has come and gone. I'm a little sad because it's one of my favorite holidays but I console myself at its passing by knowing that the truly spooky season has just begun. Halloween kicks off the darkest time of the year. The days are rapidly getting shorter, the trees are growing bare, and we set the clocks back tonight. Boston may even see some snow flurries on Friday.

In other words, we're entering the bleak, barren time of the year.  It's the perfect time for weird tales and ghost stories - particularly if they might be true. Someone emailed me a story (which might be true) just last week and gave me permission to share it. Here it is for your November pleasure.


In October of this year a Canadian woman (I'll call her Shawna), her daughter, and a cousin decided to visit New Hampshire during foliage season. Their trip included staying at the Bretton Woods Resort. Bretton Woods is one of the great New England resorts, with a fabulous old grand hotel (the Mount Washington) and the smaller Bretton Arms Inn on the grounds. Bretton Woods has everything you could want in a mountain resort: good food, fireplaces, hiking and horseback trails that wind through the woods and along rivers, and skiing in the winter.

Lobby of the Mount Washington Hotel.

Bretton Woods also has a ghost. Shawna discovered this first hand during her visit while staying at the Bretton Arms Inn.
On our first night my teenaged daughter woke up screaming that she saw an apparition beside her bed (we were in a bedroom with two twin beds adjacent to the main room). As a result we had to sleep with the lights on for the second night. For the record, my daughter does not believe in ghosts (at all) and does not suffer from nightmares
I put it from my mind until a week after we returned to Toronto and Googled Mt Washington Resort when I discovered the resort has a history of this (we had no idea before).
Like most paranormal accounts the story is quite short. I think it's interesting that Shawna didn't know about the resort's haunted history. It makes her story more credible.


The ghost that haunts Bretton Woods is said to be the spirit of Caroline Stickney, the wife of Joseph Stickney, a wealthy industrialist who built the Mount Washington Hotel in 1902. Mr. Stickney died one year after the hotel was completed, but Caroline remarried a wealthy European prince and continued to spend her summers at the hotel. She had a private suite she stayed in, and even had a special balcony built above the main dining room so she could survey what the other guests were wearing. She wanted to be sure that she was the best dressed person in the room! 

A portrait of Caroline Stickney at the Mount Washington Hotel.

Caroline Stickney died in 1936. The winter after she died a hotel caretaker reported seeing strange things. He said he saw a well-dressed woman walking into the dining room at night - and there were no guests staying in the hotel at the time. That winter other staff reported that lights would turn themselves off and on when no one was in the room.

Caroline's ghost has haunted the resort ever since. She is a benevolent ghost but can be frightening to those who aren't prepared for the encounter. Her spirit is the most active in Room 314 of the Mount Washington Hotel, which was her private suite while alive. Guests who stay in this room often report a wide range of strange phenomena including flickering lights, faucets and fireplaces that turn themselves on and off, and objects disappearing. 

Tony and I stayed at Bretton Woods way back in November 2013. There weren't a lot of guests at the time since foliage season had ended and ski season hadn't begun. Our room was in the Mount Washington and the hotel, with its long empty corridors and formal public spaces, reminded me of the one in The Shining. We didn't encounter anything ghostly but we did have dinner with a family member who lived in the area. She had once worked at a conference there and had seen strange things happen. Office supplies vanished only to reappear someplace else, and files had moved around on their own. 

As a hotelier who loved the Bretton Woods I don't think Caroline Stickney means any harm to the guests. But still it must be quite a shock to wake up in the middle of the night and see her standing above your bed.