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Essay

Happy Thanksgiving

By November 28, 2013 3 Comments
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Thanksgiving is a time abounding with associations, where each item on our often copiously supplied dining table connects us to something, or usually more regularly, someone else: your great aunt Ida’s Brussels sprout casserole or grandma’s sweet potato pie. Even what we do on this day is loaded with connections. You watch the Lion’s game because that’s what your dad did and what his dad did on Thanksgiving, even if you tend not to pay them much attention the rest of the season. Thanksgiving is fraught with associations, as I suppose are most holidays. But Thanksgiving is special in the way that it combines the personal/familial and the national/patriotic with good doses of the spiritual/religious thrown in as well.
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Some of those associations are the songs and music we connect to the holiday. To be fair, there’s not a lot of music specifically for this day because I think as the facebook memes convey, it is quickly and easily overshadowed by the “Christmas” season. Still, there are a few. For instance there’s “Over the River and Through the Wood” (although I could only think of the first verse). And popularly there’s the likes of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” which actually includes very little music or Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Turkey Lurkey Time,” again, not really a rousing song for the whole family to join in around the table. And famously, Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song,” which is actually more easily sung around the banqueting feast, but probably shouldn’t.
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Most of the music that we could more readily think of as Thanksgiving fall in the hymn category, for instance “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” “We Plough the Fields and Scatter,” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” But the song I most readily sing on this day is “We Gather Together.” And it’s the associations that I connect to this song that I’ve been pondering heavily this Thanksgiving Day.
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“We Gather Together” should be familiar to many who read The Twelve. It’s history dates back to 1597 by Adrianus Valerius as “Wilt heden nu treden” and set to the melody of a Dutch folk tune. The folk tune’s popular lyrics started with “Wilder dan wilt, wie sal mij temmen,” or as Google translate can help us non-Dutch speaker, “Wilder than want, who shall tame me.” Valerius—who is also renowned as composing “Het Wilhelmus,” the Dutch national anthem—penned new and perhaps more respectable lyrics to the tune in celebration of the Dutch Protestant Prince Maurice of Orange’s victory over King Philip II of Spain in the Battle of Turnhout on Junuary 24, 1597. It was published after Valerius’s death in 1626 in a collection of songs called “Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck.”
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The song gained more attention much later after the Austrian musician Eduard Kremser who served as a choirmaster in Vienna arranged Valerius’s pieces in a German translated collection and published in Leipzig, Germany in 1877 as Sechs Altniederlandische Volkslieder. The tune that most of us know to the hymn is named as KREMSER. Most English translations of the song came then from the German. Theodore Baker, an American translated the hymn into English in 1894 as “Prayer of Thanksgiving.” I consulted friend and colleague (and guru of things Dutch and musical), Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter about this hymn and he commented that “the familiar English translation is a distant paraphrase, with a premium on good English rhymes, especially on two-syllable internal rhymes (heden, treden, gather together, beside us guide us).” So there you have it.
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Interestingly, I learned that in 2317 when the Christian Reformed Church in North America finally began singing more than Psalms, “We Gather Together” was the opening hymn in the hymnal.
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So this song about coming together and giving thanks, praising God, but with a patriotic bent started off as such and fits very well with our American Thanksgiving celebration. So I suppose that it is fitting that this hymn first came to my awareness not because of our great Dutch Reformed heritage or beautiful practice of pietism or even patriotic zeal. Rather, I remember back in the good old days of an earlier US Presidential administration, back when hope was more than a slogan, when you could believe in your elected officials, especially President Josiah Edward Bartlet. Yes, I associate this song of thanksgiving to the Thanksgiving episode of The West Wing. The episode ends with a children’s choir sing it.
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Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
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Happy Thanksgiving!

3 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, finally, Saturday morning, after a difficult celebration with extended family, yes, only now do I get my celebration of Thanksgiving. I'm grateful to the author of the posting, and also to CJ and her boss, President Bartlett.

  • JVS says:

    Loved the piece and share many sentiments. The first Christian Reformed psalter with hymns (the purple Psalter Hymnal) has a publication date of 1934 rather than 1937.

  • Thomas C. Goodhart says:

    Thank you for the correction, JVS!

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