Poems to Read on Thanksgiving Day

Dickinson, Hughes and Sandburg All Honor the Day

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The story of the first Thanksgiving is a familiar one to all Americans: After a year filled with suffering and death, in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims at Plymouth had a feast to celebrate a bountiful harvest. This feast is surrounded by legends of the local Native Americans joining in the celebration and groaning tables of turkey, corn and some form of cranberry dish. These foods are the bedrock of the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

It was not an official holiday until President Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863, although it was unofficially celebrated before that time by many Americans.

It is a time for families gathered together to reflect on all the good things of their lives and an appropriate moment to read eloquent poems to mark the holiday and its meaning.

'The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day'  by Lydia Maria Child

This poem, more commonly known as "Over the River and Through the Wood," was written in 1844 and depicts a typical holiday journey through New England snows in the 19th century. In 1897 it was made into the song that is more familiar than the poem to Americans. It very simply tells the story of a sleigh ride through the snow, the dapple-gray horse pulling the sleigh, the howling of the wind and the snow all around, and at last arriving at grandmother's house, where the air is filled with the smell of pumpkin pie.

It is the maker of the images of a typical Thanksgiving. The most famous words are the first stanza:​

"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."

 

'The Pumpkin' by John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier uses grandiose language in "The Pumpkin' (1850) to describe, in the end, his nostalgia for Thanksgivings of old and bounteous love for pumpkin pie, the enduring symbol of those holidays.

The poem begins with strong imagery of pumpkins growing in a field and ends as an emotional ode to his now elderly mother, enhanced by similes.

"And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express, 

Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less, 

That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below, 

And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow, 

And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky 

Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!"

No. 814 by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson lived her life almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world, rarely leaving her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, or receiving visitors, except for her family. Her poems were not known to the public in her lifetime; the first volume of her work was published in 1890, four years after her death. So it's impossible to know when a particular poem was written. This poem about Thanksgiving, in characteristic Dickinson style, is obtuse in its meaning, but it implies that this holiday is as much about memories of previous ones as about the day at hand:

"One day is there of the series

Termed 'Thanksgiving Day'

Celebrated part at table

Part in memory--"

 

'Fire Dreams' by Carl Sandburg

"Fire Dreams" was published in Carl Sandburg's 1918 volume of poetry, "Cornhuskers," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.

He is known for his Walt Whitman-like style and use of free verse. Sandburg writes here in the language of the people, directly and with relatively little embellishment, except for a limited use of metaphor, giving this poem a modern feel. He reminds the reader of the first Thanksgiving, conjures up the season and gives his thanks to God. Here's the first stanza:

"I remember here by the fire,
In the flickering reds and saffrons,
They came in a ramshackle tub,
Pilgrims in tall hats,
Pilgrims of iron jaws,
Drifting by weeks on beaten seas,
And the random chapters say
They were glad and sang to God."

 

'Thanksgiving Time' by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, famous as a seminal and hugely important influence on the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, wrote poetry, plays, novels and short stories that shed a light on the black experience in America.

This ode to Thanksgiving from 1921 invokes traditional images of the time of year and the food that is always part of the story. The language is simple, and this would be a good poem to read at a Thanksgiving with children gathered 'round the table. Here's the first stanza:

"When the night winds whistle through the trees and blow the crisp brown leaves a-crackling down,
When the autumn moon is big and yellow-orange and round,
When old Jack Frost is sparkling on the ground,
It's Thanksgiving Time!"