Surprisingly, Puritans actually had fun on Thanksgiving

Today the observance of Thanksgiving gets squashed between the Halloween candy highs and the consuming craze of Christmas, but things were very different for early New England Puritans. For them, Thanksgiving was the most festive day of the whole year when they could drop some of their “puritanical” ways and enjoy life.

“The annual Thanksgiving festival was the one occasion when the meeting house and its worshipers could be said to positively relax from the traditional New England severity and to put on a genial and joyful aspect,” wrote Rev. Noah Porter, president of Yale College, in 1882 for an article on “The New England Meeting House” that appeared in an 1883 publication of the “New Englander.”

The information here was gleaned from the archives of the Milford Historical Society.

For Puritans, Thanksgiving was not only a time to give thanks, but a day when they could loosen their strait laces and express pleasure in something.

Porter continues: “In the old times, I have been told by those who knew, that the large brick oven was carefully heated and the chicken and other pies were consigned to its faithful ministrations, while the entire family repaired to the meeting house in full faith that the dinner would be done to nicety against their return.”

Sunday was the day to praise God and heed the transforming words of the Gospel, but that’s not to say that everyone got a certificate for perfect attendance. Porter tells us: “In later and somewhat more degenerative days the mother of the household was conspicuously absent with the consent of the congregation, if she had a special reputation for the delicious flavor of her baked meats and roasts, and the irresistible composition of her pies.”

Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving worship service gave everyone an extra helping of the good news. “The long prayer was offered with a more copious amplitude and freedom than was common and a more glowing fervor,” wrote Porter. “The sermon was more glowing and rhetorical than the discourse of ordinary Sundays, and was listened to with more marked attention. Possibly some subject of local interest or enterprise was proposed or discussed, which might involve an expenditure of money or the venture of new enterprise.”

Porter recounts from others’ early observations, “The sympathy of the congregation could hardly be restrained as they noticed some bereaved household and thought of the beloved youth or parent who had gone.”

He also tells us “The duty of the rich and the prosperous to the poor and the straitened was plainly enforced by the preacher, and it was generously fulfilled by his hearers.

“The blessings of the year, in early and late harvests, were gratefully recounted. The goodness of God was at least one day in the year definitely recognized in the old meeting house, and in a manner and with a fervor which the most exacting Arminian … could require.” (Arminians followed the ideas of Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius).

Porter’s 1880s essay was selected by a committee on Historical Publications to be reprinted for the 300th commemoration of the State of Connecticut in 1935.

He recounts that the meeting house was central to the development of a New England community. Every early settlement had to be organized, and the church supplied a model of organization. There was no incompatibility between a town meeting and a worship service. It was where people gathered to discuss earthly civic matters and matters of the spirit. In other words, church and state lived in the same building.

Milford Historical Society