Over Rivers, Through Woods and Beyond: A Thanksgiving Tribute

Q: What do Thanksgiving and the 19th century Feminist Movement have in common?

A: Lydia Maria Child.

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For the first thirty five years of my life, I sang Over the River and Through the Woods every Thanksgiving without a moment’s thought as to its origin. Then, like grandmother’s cap, I spied a beautifully illustrated version of this poem at a book fair and bought it for my son, Robert, and my daughter, Eliza. After reading it aloud a few times to Eliza and Robert, who at the time appreciated my singing, I noticed the note on the inside cover about the author, Lydia Maria Child. This simple note about a writer from our past intrigued me, and I hope it will inspire you to do a bit of research, say an extra thank-you to the women in your life, or think a little more deeply about how our country has changed since that first Thanksgiving, and the progress that still lies ahead. Maybe it will give you an interesting piece of American history and literary history to share at your Thanksgiving table today.

“Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was a prominent nineteenth-century American literary figure and one of the first women authors in the United States who made her living exclusively by her writing. She was an ardent anti-slavery advocate and also wrote one of the earliest feminist treatises. She was a prolific and controversial writer and produced about thirty books, including several for children.”

Interested by what I read, I did more research. Lydia Maria Child lived a life marked by activism and literary accomplishments. She was an abolitionist and a voice for women’s rights and Indian rights. Child served on the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society and was a leader in many activist organizations throughout her life. Before becoming a writer and activist, Child was a student of literature and then a teacher. She was educated by her brother after her mother died when she was a teenager, and she quickly became an educator herself. She worked as a teacher, founded a school, and eventually became a full-time writer and activist. Lydia Maria Child wove her many causes into her fiction and non-fiction work, influencing her peers and creating change.

While writing change-inspiring literature for adults, Lydia Maria Child was also a voice for children, and will most likely always be most recognized for her famous poem. Over the River and Through the Woods was originally published in 1844 in an anthology of poems entitled Flowers for Boys and Girls. It was later set to music and became the timeless anthem for Thanksgiving. This song has marked the beginning of the holiday season for me since childhood, long before stores had the misguided notion that it was okay to play Christmas music before Thanksgiving had arrived. Thanksgiving Day drives from my childhood home in Malvern, PA to either Wilmington or Pottstown, where my two sets of grandparents lived, are vivid memories. We traveled over streams and through woods, often singing this song, as my excitement and anticipation grew. For anyone who hears a little voice say, “Are we there yet?” from the back of the car today, that childhood tradition is captured in this poem, too. It is a song full of love, childhood spirit and tradition, a song that my students sang each year, and a song that my own children have already come to cherish.

Thank you to Lydia Maria Child for an inspiring and complex literary career, illustrator Christopher Manson for your eye-catching and timeless woodcuts, and North South Publishing. Here are the six verses included in this version of the poem. I wish you all a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving!

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-
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,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring,
“Ting-a-ling-ding!”
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river and through the wood,
Trot fast my dapple-gray!
Spring over the ground
Like a hunting hound!
For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river and through the wood,
And straight to the barnyard gate.
We seem to go
Extremely slow-
It is so hard to wait!

Over the river and through the wood-
Now Grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurray for the pumpkin pie!

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