From the Nov. 19, 1971 edition of the Gazette by Henry Beetle Hough:

Until Abraham Lincoln set the date for Thanksgiving as a national observance in 1863, people had thanksgiving feasts when anyone was moved to get them up, or when hunger and abundance happened to coincide. Other suitable elements were drawn upon, but the central association was with a full harvest, and this fixed the season of the holiday.

On the front of Agricultural Hall at West Tisbury where the fairs are held, there used to be a painted inscription just above the sheltering porch roof: “Honor the Lord with thy substance and with the first fruits of all thine increase, so shall thy barns be filled with plenty.” I wish it were there still, even though most barns have long since been converted into guest houses.

And the fairs, of course, are no longer held as they were long ago, in October, but in August so that they may catch the patronage of the summer people. The main attraction is a carnival, and it isn’t possible to stir much of a quarrel with the change, for who cares now about the largest pumpkin or the beautiful perfection of any bunch of onions? Emma Mayhew Whiting told me that when she was a small girl she kept peeling off her father’s onions, trying to make them more beautiful, until they got so small the judges didn’t even give them a gratuity. Fairs and farms alike were family enterprises in those times.

Nowadays we have excellent market gardens, but produce is grown mostly for summer and reaches a climax with those big red tomatoes that are gone too soon after Labor Day. Sweet corn so much sweeter than it used to be, is sold and eaten green. When October comes we have a paucity of turnips and other root crops, relatively few sheep, usually no hogs at all, and enough pumpkins to put on doorsteps in observance of tradition, or used for Halloween.

There is no getting away from it: we come to the time of editorials and proclamations and Thanksgiving itself without any harvest of our own, or any real harvest at all. The Harvest, with capitals, has become a symbol, but it is no less important or eloquent or deeply moving than it ever was.

We add to its meaning the events and importunities of the times in which we live, but The Harvest remains always. I find in my researches that the Old Editor of the Gazette, only a year after Lincoln’s call to the first national Thanksgiving, wrote an editorial of which this paragraph was a part:

“Around many well laden tables was found no vacant chair, and as they catered to their craving appetites, we fear that they thought not of the widow and orphan whose husband and father went forth that they might sit under their own vine and fig tree unmolested to enjoy each coming Thanksgiving. Awake, sluggish soul, and consider whence are vouchsafed to you so much of the goods of the earth.”

“The goods of the earth” — for these men sowed and worked and, according to the Old Editor, fought. So long as he put in “the goods of the earth” I think it was all right for him to put in anything else he chose.

Turkey is the accepted Thanksgiving feast; in folklore the two will be forever one. Yet, to my surprise, I found a fancier and more varied fare recommended in the Gazette in the conservative old year of 1888:

“Thanksgiving breakfast: coffee, deviled oysters on toast, water cress salad, fried chicken, cream sauce, baked sweet potato, tomato omelette, Malaga grapes.

“Thanksgiving dinner: stewed oysters, broiled smelts, sauce maitre d’hotel; Parisian potatoes; squirrel potpie, hunter’s style; stewed cauliflower, roast turkey with cranberry sauce; celery mayonnaise; fruit cake, lady’s fingers, pumpkin pie, mince pie, cheese, assorted nuts and fruits.”

The menus are puzzling; although they have a country orientation, I think the Old Editor must have been swayed by the elegances of some woman’s magazine. I am confident that his own Thanksgiving dinner consisted of turkey with eight different vegetables, all of them root crops, followed by pumpkin and mince pie. Oh yes, he would have had cranberry sauce, of course.

Inasmuch as Thanksgiving is a homecoming and a family holiday — though sometimes the relatives are rounded up almost by conscription, and have discordant things to say among themselves — I agree with the passage as written. But contentment is as far off as it ever was, and late November, ever in the country, even on Martha’s Vineyard, brings it only a little closer.

Unless, perhaps, we go back to the old blessings, and this, I think, is at last coming to my point; unless we, who perhaps have never known the old blessings undisguised, or hardly known them in the original sense, allow our instincts to take us back further than our memories. Consciousness aside, there are in all of us chromosomes, cells, responses, and the echoing awareness of times, climates, environments long gone — harvests, too — that can give us the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox