As Thanksgiving 2023 approaches, I find myself wondering how often Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about this traditional American holiday. She did not mention it in her autobiography and rarely referred to it in her Little House series. She gave a brief, historical accounting of the holiday in On the Banks of Plum Creek. With the dugout door open to the unseasonably warm weather, the Ingalls family ate a stewed wild goose with dumplings, corn dodgers, and mashed potatoes. They finished off the meal with stewed plums and parched corn. And just that quick, “Thanksgiving was past and it was time to think of Christmas” (Plum Creek, pp. 81–82). Wilder referred to the November holiday again in Little Town on the Prairie, where the mention is even briefer and far less traditional: “It was a queer, blank day, full of anxious watching of the pie and the beans and waiting for the evening” (Little Town, p. 227). The Ingalls family contributed the pie and beans to the New England Supper at the local church. For this Thanksgiving evening, Wilder used details from her autobiography to recreate a February 1884 fundraising event hosted by “ladies of the Baptist church” of De Smet, Dakota Territory.1
Given brief mentions of the holiday in her novels, I began to think of Thanksgiving as an overlooked occasion, but, no, Wilder mentioned the holiday regularly in her newspaper columns. She usually urged her readers to thank God, or “a Higher Power,” for their blessings and often suggested that readers not wait for the Thanksgiving Day feast but to be thankful at all times.2 General thankfulness was also the theme in Wilder’s drafts of By the Shores of Silver Lake. As Laura and Mary made gifts for Christmas, Laura suddenly “felt so glad that Pa was safe at home instead of being lost in a blizzard. . . . She looked at Mary and was happy that Mary was well again. . . . Oh! She was glad! Glad! —Why this was the way to feel at Thanksgiving time! . . . And why are we thankful at Thanksgiving? Just for the good gifts that have been given us.”3 This nod to Thanksgiving did not survive the editing process, but the reference, mixed as it was with Christmas preparations, is typical of Wilder’s treatment of the November holiday. It is too close to Christmas, and if the Thanksgiving meal is given too much attention, the celebratory dinner the family shares at Yuletide becomes redundant.
The problem of the proximity of Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts was particularly evident in early drafts of Farmer Boy, where the traditional Thanksgiving dinner was just one sumptuous meal too many. The entire chapter was removed prior to publication, but it contained a loving portrayal of the feast that most Americans associate with the holiday. The day opened with Almanzo and his family traveling to Uncle Wesley’s house. As the extended family sat at the table, Uncle Wesley “thanked God for all the year’s blessings” until “it was time to feast in thankfulness for the Lord’s bounty.” Wilder described the carving of the turkey and serving of the meal: “Its sides were crackling golden and crisp, and the juicy white meat of the breast fell away in slices. . . . The drumsticks were plump and tender. The dressing smelled of onion and sage, and brown, rich gravy mixed with fluffy mashed potatoes.” Succotash and squash, corn relish, beet and cucumber pickles, roasted ham, and sweet apple preserve followed. Almanzo polished off the meal with three kinds of pie but failed to finish his slice of fruit cake. Afterward, he sat in the parlor and “felt that he would never be hungry again” as he listened “while the grown-ups visited with each other, until it was time to go home.”4
On Thanksgiving Day, we can all relate to Almanzo’s feeling of never being hungry again. And yet, less than a month later, we will likely consume a large Christmas dinner with equal gusto—just as Almanzo did in Farmer Boy, managing on that occasion to finish his fruit cake and stash another slice in his pocket (pp. 324–25). As Wilder the newspaper columnist reminded us, “we must decide whether we shall show our thankfulness only by overeating at the Thanksgiving feast. That would seem a rather curious way to show gratitude.”5 Instead, she urged us to be grateful for all life’s blessings, large and small, all year long.
―Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), pp. 350–51, 353. For a description of the traditions that the Thanksgiving at Plum Creek represented, see Sarah S. Uthoff, “Thanksgiving and Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Nov. 17, 2015, Little House on the Prairie, littlehouseontheprairie.com.
- Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), pp. 90–91, 126, 263, 268, 278, 292.
- Wilder, Draft of By the Shores of Silver Lake, pp. 113–14, file 233, box 15, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
- Wilder, Draft of Farmer Boy, pp. 184–85, file 218, box 14, ibid.
- Wilder, Farm Journalist, p. 263.