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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

 

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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Did Jane Austen Celebrate Thanksgiving?

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ November 17, 2023

A silly question, you say? Maybe or maybe not—hear me out.

American Thanksgiving

Ray Trevena / The Ancient Custom of Blessing the Fields on Rogation Sunday at Hever, Kent"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Obviously, Jane Austen did not celebrate Thanksgiving as we know it in the United States and in Canada. As every school child in the US knows (or should know), Thanksgiving in the United States has its origins in a feast that was held in 1621 by English Pilgrims and Native Americans to celebrate a successful harvest. The celebration is believed to have been in late November. The feast lasted for several days and was a communal celebration of the harvest, a way for the Pilgrims to express gratitude for their survival and for the help provided by the Native Americans.

In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to occur on the last Thursday in November. In 1941, Congress officially established Thanksgiving as a legal holiday.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Canadian Thanksgiving has a different historical background and origin. In 1578, Martin Frobisher, an English explorer, celebrated a homecoming and thanksgiving ceremony in what is now Newfoundland as a gesture of gratitude for the safe return of his expedition who underwent many perils whilst seeking a Northwest Passage.

Over time, various regions in Canada held intermittent thanksgiving celebrations, but it wasn't until 1879 that Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VII) from a serious illness.

Thanksgiving Dinner Calgary 

Initially, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different dates in different provinces, but by 1957, the Canadian Parliament proclaimed the second Monday in October as the official Thanksgiving holiday. Canadian Thanksgiving is a more general expression of gratitude for the blessings of the harvest season than American Thanksgiving, which celebrates the specific event of the Pilgrim Father’s survival.

Turkey

One tradition that is an important part of both American and Canadian thanksgivings that we know the Austen family did enjoy was that of eating turkey. Mrs. Austen was known for raising fowl. Jane, in Bath with her brother Edward and his family, writes home to her sister Cassandra at Steventon, sending greetings to the Austen fowl from a young nephew: “he hopes all your turkeys and ducks and chicken and guinea fowls are very well;”

In her letters Jane mentions eating turkey at the “big house” (brother Edward’s home in Chawton), and another time of Edward taking a turkey to Jane and her brother Henry in London. It appears that the wealthy Edward Austen Knight had a particular fondness for turkey.

During the Regency turkeys were considered a relatively exotic and expensive choice, reserved for wealthier households or special occasions such as Christmas.

Austen uses turkey as an example of rich dining in her novel Mansfield Park where the gluttonous clergyman Dr. Grant is so fond of the dish that his wife makes a fuss over serving it, although the spoiled Mary Crawford considers it a typical product of a poulterer.

Harvest Festival

Harvest Festival, the popular UK day of giving thanks for the bounty of the earth dates back to pagan times when communities would give thanks for a successful harvest. The British practice as we know it, however, post-dates Jane Austen. Harvest Festival as it is known today has specifically Christian, even Anglican roots. The first recorded Harvest Festival church service took place in 1843 in Cornwall, England. The Reverend Robert Hawker invited his parishioners to a special thanksgiving service for the harvest at his church in Morwenstow as an alternative to the often-drunken celebrations that took place at the completion of a harvest.

The tradition grew in popularity throughout Victorian times and became common in churches across England. Harvest Festivals involve church services, prayers, hymns, and the decoration of churches with seasonal produce such as fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Many celebrations include a harvest meal and harvested or purchased foods are donated to charity as an expression of thanksgiving and to help those in need. Undoubtedly an occasion Jane Austen would have enjoyed had it been held in her day.

Rogation Days

Ray Trevena / The Ancient Custom of Blessing the Fields on Rogation Sunday at Hever, Kent

One harvest-related festival that was well established in Austen’s day, however, is that of Rogation days. Unlike the Autumn celebrations, Rogation comes in the spring as a prayer for a bountiful harvest and a blessing on the earth. A moveable observance, Rogation occurs in the Christian calendar on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday (40 days after Easter).

The term “rogation” itself comes from the Latin word rogatio, meaning “asking” or “prayer.” The observance can be traced back to the 7th century when Saint Augustine of Canterbury introduced the practice. It had gained formal recognition by Medieval times.

During Rogation Days, the clergy and parishioners hold liturgical processions through the fields and other significant areas of the parish. The processions involves prayers, hymns, and the blessing of the fields and crops, often asperging the fields with holy water. This is seen as a way to consecrate the land, seek divine favor for a fruitful harvest, and ask for protection from natural disasters. Although not as popular as in earlier days, the practice is still observed in some parishes.

The Rev George Austen's church at Steventon, Hampshire

Although Austen does not mention Rogation in any of her writings, we know her father and two of her brothers were faithful Church of England vicars in Hampshire—a highly agricultural county. In the 18th century, England was primarily an agrarian society in the early 18th century, around 70-80% of the English population may have been employed in agriculture to some extent. Even though this percentage declined over the century as industrialization and urbanization progressed most of Hampshire throughout the 18th century would have been agrarian with cultivated fields, common lands, woodlands, meadows, and pastures. The crops that any Rogation procession might beseech a blessing on could have included: wheat, barley, oats, rye, turnips, pulses, flax and fruit. And the prayers would have been fervent because there were few safety nets to sustain the population in case of crop failure.

Prayers could have been similar to this from Divine Worship, The Missal:

O God, from whom all good things do come: grant to us thy humble servants; that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for Rogation Sunday

Walking

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett Pride and Prejudice movie 1995

Whether or not any of the Reverend Mister Austens led their parishes in Rogation processions, it’s a near certainty that if a procession was available to Jane Austen she would have participated. There were few activities she enjoyed more than walking. Her letters are filled with reports of the walks she enjoyed in all kinds of weather. “We took a very charming walk…across some fields.” “We walked to Weston one evening last week, and liked it very much. Liked what very much? Weston? No, walking to Weston.”

In one collection of letters she makes nearly 60 references to taking walks, many referring to “our usual walk” and such comments as “we do nothing but walk about” and “we walk a good deal.” She goes so far as to characterize herself as a “desperate” walker.

Also, many of Austen’s characters reflect her love of walking such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice walking across the fields to care for her sick sister, in spite of the muddy damage to her gown. (But Mr. Darcy noted only how brilliant the exercise had made her “fine eyes.”) Although country rambles can lead to disaster as Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility belatedly discovers when her turned ankle literally puts her in the clutches of the rogue Willoughby, and Harriet Smith’s encounter with gypsies on a country path leads to her unhappy infatuation with Frank Churchill in Emma.

So, although Jane Austen would not have experienced Thanksgiving Day or Harvest Festival as we might today, it is a near certainty that she would have followed a hearty turkey dinner at Chawton House with an invigorating country walk through the beautiful Hampshire countryside. There are few activities for which one could be more thankful.

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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