September 1991

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 46

The Donation Party

We have all heard of a man who went through the ceremony of combing only once a year, and who always, when the dread moment came, pitied those poor creatures who endured the operation every day. Even so, after one day of dissipation, did we, dwellers in the voiceless woods, where it is a task to remember the days of the week—one being so much like another,—pity those unfortunates whose lot it is to "go pleasuring" all the time. The fatigue of eye and ear,—the heat, the dust, the din of yesterday, and after all, the sleepless night,—made repose really necessary; and we lounged away the morning, visiting several friends, and surveying, under their guidance, what was best worth notice in the village and its neighborhood. The place stands on rising ground, and commands a fine view of the surrounding country, then smiling in soft summer loveliness, and diversified everywhere with wood and water, though destitute of any striking features, if we except the one deep dell, whose full and rapid stream forms the wealth of the village.

"Hard times" had made no impression on the sweet face of Nature. Not a frown reproved the ungrateful grumbler, man; who, if he cannot find the superfluity which is required by an insatiable thirst for distinction, overlooks and contemns the kind care that richly provides for all his real wants. All was peace, industry and abundance, and the heart could not but dilate with pleasure at the sight of a multitude of objects all typical of the overflowing goodness of God, and calling upon his rational creatures for "the honor due his name."

We were most hospitably treated—for the spirit of hospitality is not confined to the cottages of the West—and our kind entertainers proposed several plans for a pleasant evening; but the one which proved most attractive was visit a at the house of a clergyman with whom we had some acquaintance, and who was to receive all the world within five miles of ______, in the form of that relic of primitive Puritanism known among us as a "donation party." We had heard of this custom—a general visit to the clergyman, each guest bringing something by way of offering,—and we were delighted with the opportunity of assisting at one—assisting la Francaise, I mean. We presented ourselves, by special request, at an early hour; but, early as it was, dozens of good plain folks from the country had preceded us. Some indeed, we were told, had been on the ground since breakfast-time. We always do things in earnest here. When we say, "Come and spend the day,"—we should stare to see the invited guest come at two o'clock, just as we had put away the dinner dishes, and taken out our knittingwork or our patchwork for the afternoon. Avis au lecteur, in case he ventures to invite a Western friend without specifying the hour.

But, as we were saying, some good ladies had taken time by the forelock, and here they were, beginning already to yawn (covertly), and to long for their tea. Two great baskets in the hall were already pretty well filled with bundles of yarns, woollen stockings of all sizes, (sure to fit, in a clergyman's family,) rolls of home-made flannel, mysterious parcels enveloped in paper, and bags which looked as if they might contain a great many precious things. Flocks of company were arriving, and no one empty handed, so that the "removal of the deposits" became a measure of necessity, and the contents of the two baskets were transferred to some reservoir above stairs. Before the baskets had been restored to their places, there was some embarrassment among the new comers as to the proper bestowment of their contributions, etiquette requiring that an air of mysterious reserve should be observed. But the difficulty was obviated by the arrival of a handsome tea-table, borne by two young men as the representatives of a little knot who had hit upon this pretty thought of a present for the minister's lady. Upon this the tasteful class of offerings were displayed to good advantage, and I observed among the rest a study-lamp, a richly-bound Shakespeare, and a bronze inkstand with proper appurtenances. Among the more magnificent were a standing fire screen elegantly wrought; and a pair of foot-stools on which the skill of the cabinet-maker had done its utmost in displaying to advantage very delicate embroidery. The variety as well as the beauty of the gifts was very ingenious, and nobody could find fault with a handsome purse, filled with gold, bearing, in minute letters wrought into its beadwork, the inscription, "To the Reverend Mr. ______, from the young men of his church."

Where so many people, young and old, were collected with a kind purpose, and under circumstances which levelled, for a time, all distinctions, conversation was not likely to flag. In truth, the general complacency evinced itself in a ceaseless stream of talk,—with only a moderate infusion of scandal, for everybody was present. The old ladies chatted soberly among themselves, and their husbands talked politics in corners. The young ladies fluttered about busily, as in duty bound; for on them devolves, by inviolable usage, all the ministering necessary on the occasion—all the reception of the company and bestowing of their offerings—all care of tea affairs and distribution of refreshments in order due. Such a dodging of pretty heads—such dancing of ringlets,—such gleaming of white teeth as there was among them! I scarcely wondered that the young men became a little bewildered, and forgot where they ought to stand, and had to be ordered about or turned out into the hall to make room for the more dignified or bulky part of the assembly, only to slip back again upon the first opportunity. So much youthful beauty is not collected everyday, and especially beauty endowed with such a pretty little coquettish station of command. I cannot doubt that much execution was done, and, in truth, there were some very obvious symptoms—but I shall not betray.

The clergyman's lady occupies rather an equivocal station on these occasions. She is not exactly in the position of hostess, for every article set before the company is furnished by themselves; and all the ordinary attentions are rendered by the young stewardesses of the hour; so the domine's wife has only to smile and look happy, and to show by her manner that she is gratified by the interest evinced, and if to this she superadds good talking powers, and can entertain those of her guests who are not particularly easy to entertain, she has accomplished all that is expected of her. And all this the fair and lady-like heroine of the present occasion did very sweetly.

The tea hour drew on, and now the mle began to assume a business-like air. The scampering reminded me of "Puss in the Corner," such was the sudden chase for seats. The old ladies put away their knitting, and their spouses began to spread their handkerchiefs on their knees, at the first rattle of the tea-spoons. Those who were not so fortunate as to secure seats, insinuated themselves as near as possible to tables and mantel-pieces, which might serve to hold the anticipated good cheer.

The younger gentlemen officiated as footmen, and they had an arduous task. Over and above the bearing of great trays of tea and coffee, and bounteous salvers of cake, biscuits, sandwiches, cheese, tongue, and all that belongs to the city and country tea-table, they had, in addition, to attend to the contradictory directions of a host of capricious mistresses of the ceremonies, who delighted in perplexing them, and who gave orders and counter-orders for the very purpose of seeing them go on bootless errands and get laughed at for their pains. But they bore all very good-humoredly, and managed to render something like a return to their fair tyrants by persuading the old ladies to drink as much tea as possible, and commending and urging the excellence of the coffee to the gentlemen is such sort that an extra supply was required, and the damsels' elbows were fain to sue for quarter. After all were served, the attendants were at liberty to provide for themselves, and whatever may have been left for them to eat and drink, I can testify that they had abundance of talking and laughing.

I ought sooner to have mentioned that the pastor in whose behalf such general interest was shown, was a person accustomed to society, and an adept in the best power of hospitality—that of making everyone feel welcome and at ease. Mr._____ was everywhere, and in everybody's thoughts. Grave with the old, gay with the young, and cheerful with all, he was in every respect the life and soul of the occasion, and each felt the time spent in conversation with him to have been "the sweet of the night." An enviable power! and one possessed in its perfection only by those whose hearts are full of kindly sympathies,—who are what others only try to appear.

After the bustle attendant upon serving the tea had subsided, the conversation gradually, and as if spontaneously, took a more serious turn, and, before we were aware, the sweet and solemn notes of a hymn, well supported in all its parts, stole upon the ear, and hushed all lighter sounds. When several stanzas had been sung, the clergyman, after a short address, invited all present to unite in prayer and thanksgiving to the bounteous Giver of all good. And thus seriously closed a very cheerful evening, without any violent transition or unpleasant contrast.

This custom of donation parties certainly seems to belong to a very primitive and simple state of society, yet its observance is by no means limited to these newly-settled regions. Wherever New Englanders have given a tone, these little gatherings have been introduced, and though there are various opinions as to the general question whether this is the best or a good way of contributing to the support of a clergyman, people generally unite in them very heartily, which affords at least a presumption in their favor. This very union is something. As far as I have been able to observe, they certainly have the one good effect of creating a nearer personal interest in the pastor and his family; and whatever tends to draw closer and nearer the ties which bind minister and people, may not be lightly discouraged, for in this calculating and utilitarian age the dangers lie on the opposite side—the side of proud indifference and chilling neglect, the most discouraging and impracticable of all atmospheres for a minister of religion.

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