“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.”
Every year during the holiday season, school children are taught this lively song without any background information about who wrote it, where it was written, and which river they were crossing. Some learn it as a Christmas song but it was written as a Thanksgiving poem later set to music by an unidentified composer.
It began when Lydia Maria Child wrote a poem entitled “The New England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving” and published it in in her book of poems, Flowers for Children, Volume 2, published in 1844. The poem describes the journey from her childhood home in Medford, Ma, to her grandfather’s house in Wayland. To get there, the sleigh went through what must have been a pretty large wood and across the Sudbury River.
Lydia Maria Child of Medford MA
“Over the river, and through the wood —
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes
And bites the nose
As over the ground we go.”
Lydia Maria Francis (she preferred Maria), the youngest of six children born to David Convers Francis, a baker (famous for his “Medford Crackers), and Susanna Rand Francis, grew up in Medford, Massachusetts. In her Boston Athenaeum biography, Tricia Patterson described her thus:
“The neighborhood knew her as a portly little girl who spent most of her time reading instead of running around and playing. Her father was busy working and was not sure how to place the young Maria, as she seemed unfit for the seminary and also for a traditional lady-like upbringing.”
Her mother died of tuberculosis when MS. Child was 12 and she went to live with her married sister in Norridgewock, Maine. There she passed her teacher’s exams and taught in Maine schools for several years. She also became acquainted with an impoverished community of native Americans.
This sparked a life-long interest in improving the conditions of native Americans. Raised in an anti-slavery household, she extended this concern for the downtrodden and became a fervent abolitionist. Ms. Child’s brother, Convers Francis, graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He became a prominent Unitarian minister in Watertown MA, and Ms. Child moved in with him and his family in 1821.
The Self-Taught, Well-Read Author
“Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!”
A senior founding member of the Transcendental Club, Rev. Francis contributed to the Transcendentalist revolt but preferred to reform the church from within rather than attack it from without. Rev. Francis guided his sister’s continuing education in the classics of literature. In his home, Ms. Child met with leading figures in the Transcendentalist movement such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Theodore Parker. Their conversation stimulated her studies.
Although home-schooled and largely self-educated, Ms. Child wrote prolifically throughout her life: novels, poetry, biographies, a homemaker’s book, magazine articles, short stories, and one of the first anti-slavery books in America. She also edited a children’s magazine in New York City from 1841 to 1852 – and received a man’s wages.
She married the lawyer and idealist David Lee Child in 1828 but left him when he rejected the editor’s job in New York City to remain on his sugar beet farm. Upon returning to Massachusetts in 1852, Ms. Child reunited with her husband and they moved into her grandfather’s house at 91 Old Sudbury Road in Wayland. The house, still extant, stands not far from the Sudbury River. It has been well maintained and currently has a value that exceeds a million dollars.
Over the River and Through the Wood
“Over the river, and through the wood
Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting-hound!
For this is Thanksgiving Day.”
Ms. Child published the famous poem while she was living and working in New York City. As a child, the long journey from Medford to her grandfather’s house in Wayland (about 30 miles) would have taken them through the Sudbury woods and over the river on a four-arched stone bridge.
Built by William Russell in 1791 to replace an older wooden structure, it was the first four-arched bridge constructed with no keystones. From there it would have been a short ride to Grandfather’s house.
A Birthday Rainbow
“Over the river and through the wood —
Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!”
Lydia Maria Child died on her 78th birthday in 1880 and is buried next to her husband in Wayland’s North Cemetery, just down the road from her home. The Sudbury Historical Society tells us that, “A magnificent double rainbow appeared as her casket was being lowered into the ground. Prisms had always entranced her, they hung in her house and how one hung in the sky.” The inscription on her tombstone says:
Lydia Maria Child
You Call Us Dead
We Are Not Dead
We Are Truly Living Now
Lydia Maria Child lives on in the poem that became a Thanksgiving standard, was set to music, and later converted to a Christmas tune.
You may have marked the difference between the cold, snowy winter Ms. Child describes and today’s weather. Anyone attempting to take a sleigh anywhere in Massachusetts this month would not get far. Although we have had a few cold days, the trees still hold on to most of their leaves and the ground isn’t frozen, much less covered with snow.
As a little girl, Ms. Child experienced the end of the Little Ice Age in America, a period of cold weather that began in the 14th century and extended to the end of the 19th century. She would have experienced plenty of white and drifted snow.