Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Unusual Origins of Thanksgiving Songs

By Carla Olson Gade ~

A full harvest of pumpkins, corn, squash and a bounty of turkey and meats. A family gathered around a table, holding hands in prayer and thanksgiving. What's not to sing about?

Soon we'll be hearing Christmas carols playing, but there are some songs that have brightened Thanksgiving in times past. You might even hear them drifting through the air waves this holiday season and into your hearts.

One such carol is "One Horse Open Sleigh" written on the only piano in town at Simpson's Tavern, a Medford, Massachusetts boarding house in 1857 by the annual one-horse open-sleigh races on Salem and Pleasant Streets between Medford Square and Malden Square. What is remarkable is that Mr. Pierpont wrote the tune for his Sunday School students who first performed it for a church Thanksgiving program, and again at Christmas. So if someone hears you humming "Jingle Bells" this Thanksgiving, you can now explain why!

Dashing through the snow, In a one-horse open sleigh
O'er the hills we go, Laughing all the way.
Bells on bobtail ring, Making spirits bright
Oh what sport to ride and sing, A sleighing song tonight.
~ Original lyrics to "One Horse Open Sleigh"

Lydia Maria Childs was one of the first American women to earn a living through writing. In 1844 she penned a Thanksgiving Day poem entitled "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day." Soon the poem was set to folk music and became a popular song to add to Thanksgiving festivities. You may recognize "Over the River and Through the Woods" as sung here by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters.

"Come, Ye Thankful People, Come" has long been enjoyed as a Thanksgiving hymn in America, yet it's 1844 origins are from England, written by a parish rector who wrote it originally entitled it "After Harvest." The first verse is written as a celebration of the harvest, calling for people to give thanks to God for it. The last two verses are based on the Parable of the Tares and the last verse states that the last harvest at the Second Coming of Jesus will happen soon. The message is universal, as is Thanksgiving wherever it is celebrated.

And on that is another with origins far from the shores of America.
You may be familiar with the hymn "We Gather Together" that is often sung at church services and in homes for Thanksgiving. But did you know that not only is there no reference to "thanks" or "thanksgiving" in the song, but its origins have nothing to do with Thanksgiving as we know it in America. In fact, it is a hymn that pays homage to the Dutch who suffered under Spanish persecution in the 16th century. Their victory allowed the protestant Dutch to be able to "gather together" after having been outlawed by the Spanish king. It is a myth that the Pilgrim's sang this song at their Thanksgiving. Pilgrims only sang spiritual songs that were from the Psalms. Eventually brought to America, the hymn was translated by Theodore Baker for an anthem entitled “Prayer for Thanksgiving” in 1894.

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.”
"Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!”

Here is a little treat in that this Thanksgiving song was written in modern times, it is set to a 19th century scene when Johnny Cash (co-writer) performed "A Thanksgiving Prayer" on an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

What is one of your favorite Thanksgiving songs?

New Englander Carla Olson Gade writes from her home amidst the rustic landscapes of Maine. With six books in print, she is enjoys bringing her tales to life with historically authentic settings and characters. An avid reader, amateur genealogist, photographer, and house plan hobbyist, Carla's great love (next to her family) is historical research. Though you might find her tromping around an abandoned homestead, an old fort, or interviewing a docent at an historical museum, it's easier to connect with her on her blog, Adventures of the Heart.

Carla's story "The Memory Shop" is featured in this year's A Cup of Christmas Cheer, vol. 4, available from Guideposts Books


  1. We GatherTogether To Ask The Lord's Blessing would be one of my favorites. Sm.

    1. I love that one, too. I don't know if they actually sang it in the movie, but I can hear the March girls from Little Women singing it in my mind.

  2. A very interesting post, particularly as we are still learning about Thanksgiving (Ex-Pats, what can I say?!)
    No song comes to mind obviously but let me share our favourite none the less: 'Jerusalem', based on William Blake's poem. It speaks of hope, new tomorrows and never fails to reminds us of what truly matters (to us).
    Many thanks for sharing your findings as always,

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Noelle. I like the works of William Blake and will have to look up Jerusalem. It sounds very meaningful and fitting.

  3. Wow! I had no idea Jingle Bells was written as a Thanksgiving song.

    I don't have a favorite Thanksgiving song, probably because I can't think of a single one. Perhaps I'll adopt Jingle Bells as mine, now that I know its history. :-)

    1. I was so surprised to hear this tid bit about Jingle Bells. It's still a Christmas song to me! ;)