This article originally appeared in the Thanksgiving Special of the Bridgton News, 2021.
This week, as the News goes to print a day early in observance of Thanksgiving, it feels appropriate to reflect on this heart-felt and most quintessential of all New England holidays, perhaps the finest American celebration handed down with care by our ancestors. Today we’ll be looking at Thanksgiving as it was celebrated in Bridgton in 1825, though before we begin I hope you will pardon me a brief review on the subject of the tradition, and the origins of this holiday as it was first celebrated.
Following President Washington’s advocacy for the observance of Thanksgiving in the late Eighteenth Century, this holiday was traditionally announced every year in the New England states by proclamations issued by our respective Governors. In 1825, Boston’s Columbian Centinel mentions this custom in their article of October 29th, noting that a “General Thanksgiving” was to be observed in all New England, where “The offerings of Praise and Thanksgiving for the blessings of the season, will ascend from the people of New-York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New-Hampshire, and Vermont, the same day; and as the good old custom of New-England is rapidly extending, we may yet have to add several other States to the number.” In Maine, this celebration had been occasioned by a proclamation on October 8th from Governor Albion K. Parris, calling “For a day of Public Praise and Thanksgiving.” A copy of this proclamation is held by the Bridgton Historical Society, from which we draw the following portions;
“When the Most High divided unto the nations their inheritance” and “appointed the bounds of their habitation,” He was pleased to reserve for our highly favored Nation, “a good land,” on which His richest gifts were to be poured out in unexampled profusion; where civil and religious liberty, with all their attendant blessings, should fix their abode, and where, in consequence, national prosperity and individual happiness should be enjoyed in a degree which has seldom, if ever, been equaled in any other part of the world.
By fulfilling these purposes of His mercy to our fathers, and by still continuing to fulfill them to us, He has laid us under peculiar obligations to yield Him amble returns of gratitude and praise; obligations which we cannot disregard or forget... It is the season in which New-England has long been accustomed to present herself with all her children before the throne of her Munificent Benefactor in the attitude of devout and adoring thankfulness, and to offer from ten thousand tongues her humble tribute of praise and Thanksgiving.
Animated by this spirit, and sharing in all the prosperity of her elder sister States, this State has not failed to imitate their laudable example by uniting with them in offering their annual sacrifice; and it cannot but be considered as highly desirable, that a custom so reasonable in itself, should be perpetuated among us, and that the time may never arrive when the people of these States shall cease to hear, and cheerfully comply with, the voice of their civil Fathers calling them, at each return of this season, to enter God’s “gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”
I have, therefore, thought fit to appoint, and with the advice of the Council, do hereby appoint, Thursday the twenty-fourth day of November next, to be observed by the inhabitants of this state, as a Day of Public Praise and Thanksgiving. And they are requested to assemble, on that day, in their several places of religious worship, and to unite as one man in offering unto God those thankful acknowledgments which His goodness demands, and in causing “one sound to be heard in blessing and praising the Lord, saying for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever…” and the Inhabitants of this State are requested to abstain from all labor and recreation, inconsistent with the services of said day.”
Here in Bridgton this proclamation was heeded to, with special church services and feasting being the hallmarks of the day. It is worth noting also, that in this era Thanksgiving was typically divided over two days; the first, the 24th, being the day of solemn prayer, church assemblage, and private family gatherings, while the day after, the 25th, was regarded as the festival day for all the large public celebrations, which by their boisterousness were not fit for such a sacred day as Thanksgiving. And so it became commonplace that the day after Thanksgiving was the time for such things as corn-husking bees, skating parties, spelling competitions, and public balls and dances. For more information on this custom, an excellent contemporary article from the Connecticut Mirror of October 22nd, 1825 notes how in New England “there is another festival… thoroughly observed in all the country towns, the day after Thanksgiving. The exercises consist of widely different amusements, to suit all kinds of folks, in shooting turkeys and hens, visiting the neighbours, and taking a near view of the eclipsed luxuries of the day before… The ladies are allowed to sit up rather late with their sparks, and the little boys, if there be safe ice in the neighborhood, may skate till nine o’clock. This is the night for Thanksgiving balls, in the villages around, and many a ticket has been printed here with always a verse to it, sometimes written by the managers, and occasionally, by way of complement we presume, left to be supplied by the taste and invention of the Editor. If this seems trifling in the youngest part of the community, be it known that on the day we speak of, their parents send from their abundance, to their poor neighbors. Clothes and quarters of beef and book, wood, school books for their children, and dozens of other charities are bestowed to suit the wants of the poor in the coming winter. The Farmers vie with each other in getting the best cord of walnut for their minister, and the richest Squire sends him the fattest turkey. The minister’s wife too is remembered, and a tribute of yarn, and other domestic comforts, is paid to show their acknowledgments to her husband for the patriotic sermon he preached about their forefathers the day before. There is something to smile about in thinking of the day after Thanksgiving; but there is much which excite the deepest and tenderest feelings that a Yankee possesses.”
In Bridgton, one such dance was held, and just as is mentioned in this article, tickets drawn up by the promoters were circulated; one of which still survives today. In the worn and faded flourishes of its lettering, this ticket tells of a grand celebration held in Bridgton in one of our local halls, very probably the Masonic Hall at North Bridgton, having been arranged by the Cushman family and several local merchants, including Dixie Stone of the Center Village. Written as an invitation to Mr. Ithamer Brigham, this ancient slip requests his attendance “at the Hall of George W. Cushmans on the twenty fifth of November at two o’clock,” to celebrate a “Thanksgiving Ball.” The ticket, seen here, together with a copy of Gov. Parris’ proclamation, may be viewed at the Bridgton Historical Society where they have been put on public display in accordance with the season. In closing, I will note that other local celebrations also took place that year, we hear vaguely of gatherings in nearby Fryeburg and Otisfield, and surely there were others besides, for statewide such events were likewise common. On November 19th, Hallowell’s American Advocate closed their remarks on Thanksgiving that year with the following sentiment; “The practice of observing such a festival is extending to other states, and it is to be hoped will, in time, become general throughout the Union.”
In time, President Lincoln would renew interest in a national Thanksgiving, and become the first President to declare one since Washington; though it would not become a formal Federal holiday until 1941, following the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This year, as we all sit down to celebrate Thanksgiving with our families, the message of the season seems closer and stronger than ever before.
To all our Readers and friends in Bridgton and beyond, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. Till next time!