November 10, 2009

Who Wrote "Over the River and Through the Woods"?

Pop Quiz: Who wrote the words to the classic Thanksgiving song "Over the River and Through the Woods"?

Answer: Lydia Maria Child, one of the earliest American women to earn her living as a writer.

Lydia was the youngest of six children. Born Lydia Francis in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802, she added the name "Maria" when she was rebaptized at age 19. She preferred to be called Maria. Her father was a baker famous for his "Medford Crackers." Her mother, described as a somewhat distant woman, died when Maria was twelve.

Maria's education was unconventional. In Noted Women of Europe and America, author James Parton wrote: "She received the best part of her education from circumstances, rather than from schools. Her first teacher was a certain Ma'am Betty of local celebrity, who was extremely untidy in her habits, kept her school in her bedroom, chewed tobacco, and continually lamented, as the never-to-be-forgotten catastrophe of her life, that Governor Brooks had once seen her drinking from the nose of her tea-kettle. Whatever may have been the other qualities that fitted this amiable lady for the position she occupied, it is at least certain that her pupils became attached to her, and it was their unfailing habit to carry to her a Sunday dinner. At Thanksgiving, too, she shared the wide charity of the Francis household, where it was the custom at this genial season to summon to a preliminary feast in the large kitchen all the workmen, besides some of the obscurer friends and dependents of the family. Pumpkin pies of vast extent baked in milk-pans were there served to them; a chicken pie of immense size graced the center of the table, surrounded by large dishes containing a profusion of doughnuts, turnovers, and other like delicacies. The little girl was of course present on these occasions to enjoy the pleasure of the guests, and doubtless, also, for she was a healthy, hungry child, to appropriate a few stray cakes and tarts to her own use. Besides receiving instruction from Ma'am Betty, she attended the public school for a short period, and later spent a year in a young ladies' seminary. Her education was then considered complete…It was at the age of twelve, while visiting her married sister in Skowhegan, Maine, that the idea of adopting literature as a pursuit first occurred to her."

Maria went on to write a popular series of advice books for women, historical novels, and anti-slavery literature and edited an early American magazine for children for which she earned a steady income of $300 per year.

Her poem entitled "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day," is what is commonly known today as "Over the River and Through the Woods." It appeared in one of Child's later books called Flowers for Children, published in 1844. In the poem, she celebrates her childhood memories of visiting her grandfather's house on Thanksgiving Day. Here is the poem in its entirety:

A Boy's Thanksgiving Day

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.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to Grandfather's house away! 
We would not stop for doll or top, 
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

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.

Over the river, and through the wood. 
with a clear blue winter sky, 
The dogs do bark and the children hark, 
as we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to have a first-rate play. 
Hear the bells ring, "Ting a ling ding!" 
Hurray for Thanskgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood- 
no matter for winds that blow; 
Or if we get the sleigh upset 
into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to see little John and Ann; 
We will kiss them all, and play snowball 
and stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
trot fast my dapple gray! 
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound! 
For 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood 
and straight through the barnyard gate. 
We seem to go extremely slow- 
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood- 
Old Jowler hears our bells; 
He shakes his paw with a loud bow-wow, 
and thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood- 
when Grandmother sees us come, 
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here, 
bring pie for everyone."

Over the river, and through the wood- 
now Grandmothers cap I spy! 
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? 
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

The real Grandfather's house still exists in Medford, Massachusetts near the Mystic River. The woods have long since disappeared.

Surprisingly, no one seems to know who wrote the melody for the Thanksgiving song.

About Lydia Maria Child's passing, James Parton wrote: "She died in 1880, tranquilly and unexpectedly. Her funeral took place on a half-clouded October day when the ground was strown [sic] with the red and gold of fallen autumn leaves. Her pall-bearers were chosen from among the farmers of the neighborhood, who were all her friends, and as her coffin was lowered into the grave the sun burst forth, and a perfect rainbow spanned the eastern sky."


quietspirit said...

I learned this song (in part) in grade school. I sang it to my own son when he was about 2 or 3 years old.
I wrote a blog entry for this month starting out with the lyrics. But I learned it with the word "grandmother".

Jean Fischer said...

I learned the song with the word "grandmother," too. I was surprised to discover that the poem was titled "A Boy's Thanksgiving," since Maria was writing about her own experience going to her grandfather's house.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Thanks for giving us the history of this song and writer.

I'm reminded of a scripture which talks about your gift making room for you. Although she lacked much formal training, she used the talents God gave her, and He opened the doors.

Susan :)

Stephanie Shott said...

I love reading about those who have gone before us and the impact they have made. I never knew that "Christmas Song" was actually a Thanksgiving Day poem. She certainly was quite a woman!

Jean Fischer said...

Thanks for your comments, Susan and Stephanie. It's interesting that she was a prolific writer, yet her legacy is one poem that became a song.

CMPointer said...

Jean, I thoroughly enjoy your blog, and I've nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award. You may pick it up at

Jean Fischer said...

Thank you, Caroline! I'm honored, and I'm sorry for not responding to your comment sooner. My computer has been acting up, and I haven't been online much.