I celebrated 100 year-old Thanksgiving traditions last year. The setting was a small town in West Virginia, known only to those who live there. In a valley dwarfed by mountains, my family enjoyed a life that would now be described as unconventional and boring – but playing in the woods, raising cattle, and hunting on our own land are some of my favorite memories.
My family has been married to this place since arriving from Great Britain in the 1850s. We’ve had a very thankful life, always respecting our roots and passing down our traditions just as we did last Thanksgiving.
In the old days, my ancestors honored this holiday with the sacrifice of a pig, a generous selection of local produce, homemade apple butter, and a secret stash of moonshine. The preparation of their Thanksgiving meal was time and labor-intensive, essentially taking months, not hours like the Thanksgiving dinners of today. The meal was more about quality than quantity; everything they served was raised, grown, or distilled. They didn’t need a lot of money or fancy tools to instill quality in their work; just determination, love, and respect for all the little steps that went into each dish.
At 4 o’clock in the morning we began cooking the pig. We were assigned shifts to hydrate the pig, stoke the fire, and get more beer. If it wasn’t my turn to keep the pig company, then I was busy churning the apple butter with a 6’ wooden rod in my hands, which made it tough to hold the beer. No electronic appliances were used in the making of this butter, just a few sets of tireless arms.
Preparing our feast in the dark reminded me of stories my mom would tell of her childhood…visiting her grandmother whose house had no electricity and whose heat was generated by a coal-burning cast iron fireplace. It was a poor little house filled with rich memories and traditions. The house still stands although now it has the amenities of modern times – yet there we were a few generations later reliving the Thanksgiving of our ancestors.
The dinner started outdoors with a prayer from one of the eldest relatives. Being thankful for the love and support of a family was at the center of all gatherings. As the years have come and gone, faith in our family values has remained constant. While some religions changed, our faith in love and goodness of one another has not. Using a bale of hay for a seat, I enjoyed the home grown meal that we worked together to prepare. A meal of slow cooked pork, stone ground iron skillet corn bread, farm raised green beans, and many other time-honored recipes.
When dinner was over the men rode their four-wheelers up the hillside to shoot clay pigeons, the women engaged in conversation, and the kids ran around the barnyard with their muck boots on.
As the sun began to set we drove our trucks up to the family cemetery that rests on top of the hill. We paid our respects to the ancestors who settled on this land. Living and future relatives may also choose this to be their final resting place. The cemetery has been deeded to the family forever. The night air was turning cool so we returned back to the farm. The rest of the night was spent sitting around a fire, telling stories, and eating s’mores. The day ended as it began – dark and quiet.
Brian Hearn is a Training Manager in Scientific Affairs. He’ll try anything once and tries to instill that sense of adventure in his two young children. Brian is not ashamed to call himself a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan. He is both creative and technical, which is an odd pairing. He will strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere.