The story behind the famous poem about a boy who's bursting with excitement to see his grandparents on Thanksgiving.

The famous poem about a boy who’s bursting with excitement to see his grandparents on Thanksgiving was published in 1844 by Lydia Maria Child, a writer and reformer from Boston who was better known in her day for her searing, radical critiques of racism, slavery, and the conquest of the Native Americans.

Child herself had an unhappy youth: her mother was ill and remote, and her father was a strict and irascible Calvinist who was alarmed by her interest in books.

When Child was 12, her mother died, and she was sent to live in her sister’s home in the interior of Maine. There, she was free to fashion an education for herself: she found tutors at Bowdoin College, mentors at a public library, and friends among the local Indian tribes, who’d been violently uprooted from their land.

At 19, Child returned to Boston to live and study with her brother, who had graduated from Harvard and was a liberal Unitarian minister. A few years later, in 1824, she scandalized the city with her first book, Hobomok, a novel about an upper-class white woman who falls in love with and marries an Indian chief.

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). Artist unknown.
Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) as a young woman. Though she married a lawyer in 1828, he never made a good living, and she supported him until his death in 1874. They had no children. Artist unknown.

Over the next several decades, Child published many more provocative books, including The First Settlers of New-England (1829), an account of the atrocities committed by the Puritans against the Indians during the 17th century; An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), the first major study of slavery in the United States; and The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act: An Appeal to the Legislators of Massachusetts (1860).

Though Child’s political writing made her a celebrity, it didn’t make her much money. Luckily, she also had a knack for creating children’s literature with broad commercial appeal. “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day” was part of a popular collection of poems and stories she wrote for eight- and nine-year-olds; the verses were later set to music.

Nowadays, schoolchildren tend to learn a condensed and modernized version of the song. Here’s the original in its entirety:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way,
To carry the sleigh,
Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop
For doll or top,
For ‘t is Thanksgiving day.

Over the river, and through the wood,
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes,
And bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
With a clear blue winter sky,
The dogs do bark,
And children hark,
As we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play—
Hear the bells ring
Ting a ling ding,
Hurra for Thanksgiving day!

Over the river, and through the wood—
No matter for winds that blow;
Or if we get
The sleigh upset,
Into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To see little John and Ann;
We will kiss them all,
And play snow-ball,
And stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood,
Trot fast, my dapple grey!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting hound,
For ‘t is Thanksgiving day!

Over the river, and through the wood,
And straight through the barn-yard gate;
We seem to go
Extremely slow,
It is so hard to wait.

Over the river, and through the wood,
Old Jowler hears our bells;
He shakes his pow,
With a loud bow wow,
And thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood—
When grandmother sees us come,
She will say, Oh dear,
The children are here,
Bring a pie for every one.

Over the river, and through the wood—
Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurra for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurra for the pumpkin pie!

(Sources: “Lydia Maria Child,” an essay by Deborah Clifford for The Poetry Foundation, and The First Woman In the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child, a book by Carolyn Karcher.)