Thanksgiving History Found in Ursinus Archives & Special Collections

Local Memories of the Holiday in the 1870s and History of its Rival Festival – “Harvest Home”

An alumni essay in the December 1891 issue of the Ursinus College Bulletin reveals memories of an early celebration of the holiday on campus with President J. H. A. Bomberger.  Here is an excerpt from the essay, entitled “A Thanksgiving Reverie”: “How many Thanksgivings like this one have come and gone!  Tonight one among them stands out clear and fresh.  Let me see.  Ah me!  It is two decades in the past … in the early days of Ursinus.  Many young men for the first time are gathered within her walls.  The hearts of many are joyous with anticipated pleasures.  A gathering of grateful people from the neighboring church is to bring thanksgiving gifts and greetings to our honored President’s home, and we are to share the joy.  [We] select the largest of America’s royal fowl, dress him in college colors, string across his back a pair of Arctics and through the gathered crowd march him in triumph to our host, who, with kindest words, thanks us for our well-meant wishes.”  The entire essay can be found here.

The Fall 1958 issue of Pennsylvania Folklife features a detailed history of a different harvest celebration widely observed by early settlers to the region – “Harvest Home.”  The ten-page article by Don Yoder, one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center, details the history of the festival, which “brought the farm to the church”: “It could be held anywhere from the first week of July till mid-October … In the period after the Civil War we begin to read of churches decorated with the fruits and vegetables and grains of harvest.”  The article features many photographs illustrating this practice of church decoration and discusses the history and rivalry with Thanksgiving.  “Pennsylvania’s Harvest Home was once … more important to Pennsylvania farmers of Dutch tongue than the November Thanksgiving Day, which was looked upon as a dubious and unnecessary, almost resented, Yankee gift.  Lutherans and Reformed … gave their private and public thanks to God for their summer’s harvest at the summer Harvest Home.  Hence for many years they felt no need of celebrating the Yankee Thanksgiving.”  The article can be read in its entirety here.

Digital issues of these resources are archived in the Ursinus Digital Commons.  Print copies of the Ursinus College Bulletin can be consulted in the Myrin Library Archives, while print copies of Pennsylvania Folklife can be found in the Myrin Library Special Collections.