An America Apple Frolic

1859 Victorian Article


THE stranger in New England is surprised not only by the gravity of its people, and the dissociation of women from such amusements as they have, but also by the absence of those festivals which are so common in other lands. This singularity deserves analysis; for which purpose it will be necessary to recur to the national antecedents.

The Church of Rome arranges her calendar so as to associate devotional feeling with the change of seasons – the hope of seed-time, joy of harvest, beauty of summer, repose of winter – profiting by their spiritual symbolisation, whereof man has an instinctive, though vague, apprehension, as is manifested in Polytheistic religions. These festivals,wisely retained by England after the Reformation,were distasteful to the Puritan fathers of New England, from their pagan origin, as enjoined by prelatical authority, and because, according to their austere conception, mirth was unseemly and displeasing to heaven!

Hence these semi-ancestors interdicted the festivals of their ancestral land, as heathenish and papistical; and consequently, between the influence of a dark Manichean creed and legislative enactments, cheerfulness was dissociated from religion and the daily life of men; imaginative delights were termed “carnal,” and a gloom settled on the land. Now, as nature cannot be violently repressed in her legitimate action without positive injury, these innocent recreations being interdicted, the New Englander found in less praiseworthy pursuits gratification for his desire of emotion.

The later Evangel of Poor Richard, whereof the philosopher Franklin was the apostle, being enunciated, the pursuit of gain was consecrated as the prime object of life to an immortal being, and the sordid maxims of a penurious huxter were engrafted on the public policy of a great nation.

This exterminated many of the noblest impulses,and the imaginative love of beauty, branded as ungodly by the Puritans, was now regarded as unprofitable in a pecuniary light, and recreations were condemned wholesale as entailing loss of time. The  consequences of this system on the mode of thought and daily life may more easily be conceived than expressed. When the axe first rings in an American forest, its ravages are indiscriminate; no tree is spared to the lamenting Dryads as an element of beauty; the log cottage stands bare and unsightly without a tree to shelter it, without aught to bring its nakedness into harmony with the scene: trees are not so profitable as corn, and the apprehension of beauty, from lack of culture, has gradually withered from the American mind.

Never is the cottage embowered in wealth of jessamine, honeysuckle, or roses, as in other lands — not even in New England; the American is nomadic, without local attachments, and without leisure; beauty, though all very well as an adjunct,to which he does not object, never urges him to exertion; if a flower appear in his garden, it is one that, like the purple potato blossom, has sordid profit and homely utility at its root.

In like manner, unless they can be combined with profit, he eschews the innocent festivities that sweeten life, or enjoys laboriously. In the south,where vegetation is stimulated by light and heat into luxuriant growth and loveliness, the negro, oblivious of bondage, and living only in the present, is radiant with sensuous joy at all times; his enforced labour is cheered by carolling,the strains of the banjo recreate his indolence under the orange trees, or throw him into the rhythm of the dance.

But the more reflective peasant of the north concentrates his thought too earnestly on his pursuits to give way to joyousness; his sensuous impulses are more under control. Yet there are certain popular merry makings that might escape the observation of a stranger, and these take place during the desolation of winter. When the out-door labours of the year have closed, when he has garnered in the produce of his thrifty care, the New Englander finds leisure for unbending in a sedate characteristic fashion of his own, — but there is method in his madness, and calculation in his smile, — as though he sought to utilise his emotions!

Many rustic duties incident to winter, furnish opportunities for the combination of business and pleasure, which would engage a household many days, did it not, by associating others to its labour, dispose of it in one. Each family in turn throws its house open to the neighbours, invoking the assistance of the youth of the vicinity on some special day, with one eye to business and another to amusement; and doubtless these characteristic meetings aid to diffuse kindliness of feeling.

The ostensible object is pleasure, though work is the invariable accompaniment, and the fatigues of the session are terminated by a feast. They are looked forward to with extreme delight by all; for here the harmless village scandals are discussed, acquaintances made, courtships initiated. The noble English girl does not look to her presentation at court with more eager trepidation, than does the village maiden of New England to her introduction to the rustic youth convened on one of these solemn occasions; and beneath homely manners may frequently be discerned a pleasing undercurrent of romance.

The names of these Saturnalia vary with their pretexts. At a “Husking,” the enveloping spathe is stripped from the maize ere it is issued as fodder for cattle, or preparatory to its despatch to the mill, whence it will return as meal. At an “Apple Frolic,” the apples or peaches that year yielded by the orchard are pared, cut, and strung for drying, constituting in that form an important element of American diet, as pastry, &c., and of export to other lands.

Let us be spectators of one of the last ab ovo ad malum, from the germinal invitation to the apple-paring and the supper. The Village of Harmony hears with approbation that Abijah Sprague will be glad to see his young friends at Cedar Creek on a certain afternoon; the pretext, apples; the object, fun; of course they will dance, for the old man plays the violin right smart.

Miss S. is widely known for her culinary skill,which each anticipates with naive pleasure the opportunity of testing personally; and being kindly and hospitable, no stinginess is to be apprehended in her arrangements. The appointed day arrives. To the delight of all, the snow has ended in a sharp frost that will render the sleighing excellent.

The guests convening from many miles round of course have to travel in sleighs, a word that will conjure up to many vague recollections of the Arctic regions, and indistinct apprehension of the vehicle so named. As there are diverse orders of wheeled carriages, so are there likewise of sleighs. That of him clothed in purple and fine linen is a glittering spring carriage, glass windowed, lined with costly furs, drawn by blood horses; that of the rustic is the body of a common open waggon, lifted from its wheels and placed on iron-shod runners, whereto a pair of the plough horses are attached.

Between the costly aristocratic vehicle skimming along Broadway and the country conveyance are all imaginable varieties; the mode of transit on skates is common to all, and to prevent accidents from the noiselessness of their motion, the horses are always bedizened with bells to give due warning to other wayfarers of their fleet approach.

That wherein we are about to hasten to the revel awaits us at the door, once and again to be a waggon devoted to drudgery, now a triumphal car for beauty. Raised only a couple of inches from the snow, a capsize cannot be dangerous; it will accommodate six, eight, nay more persons, for in this cold season the damsels will not object to the additional warmth resulting from close stowage; and then the situation has its charm, whereon silence is discreet.

Thick buffalo robes dressed by painted Indians amid the Rocky Mountains, and bear skins, trophies of our own prowess in New England forests, are thickly piled above more homely straw. The horses, decorated with gay ribbons, paw the ground impatiently, anticipating the panting rapture of swift motion, and toss their heads that they may be gladdened by the tinkling of their bells.

So from the house issue the damsels in somewhat cumbersome attire, in warm calashes, whence flash such eyes—ah me! it is dangerous to look too earnestly on them; let us rather with tender solicitude aid in ensconcing them amid the furs, like gems in a casket, covering them up so that nought remains visible but their fair faces peeping out from their warm covert.

Frequent are the admonitions of the careful elders clustered in the porch, designed to moderate the boisterousness of “us youth” accompanying many the injunctions to the rustic Phaeton to restrain his ardor and be heedful of their tender darlings; hearty the responsive vows of that daring youth as he takes his seat, attired somewhat like Crusoe in shaggy coat, a foxskin cap with brush gracefully pendent over his left ear, and crimson leggings.

He seizes the whip, uselessly symbolical of his functions, for at a slight agitation of the reins the horses bound suddenly forward amid the pretty alarm of the maidens, and fond farewells to the old folks, as though they were bound to the Pole. The anxious parents watch us as we whirl from the yard into outer space, avoiding with nice dexterity collision on the one hand with the Scylla of the haystacks, or on the other a lapse into the slippery Charybdis of the pond.

As we vanish from the dim eyes murmuring broken blessings on the happy travellers, they retreat to the snug repose of their elbow-chairs beside the blazing fire, recalling pensively the joys of their own youth, or relapsing into the vague reverie of old age, that is rather a dreamy consciousness of well-being than any determinate thought.

Away we speed with our chorus of sweet voices down the leafless village avenue, the urchins pausing in their sports to shout encouragingly after us. The horses emulatively put forth their strength, shaking melodious tinklings like dewdrops from their arched necks, their hoofs eliciting no sound from the surface over which they seem to fly unimpeded by their burden, so smoothly does it glide upon its polished iron keel.

The village has fled as rapidly as on the stage is the transition from city to wilderness, being replaced by an open region heaving in long undulations like a frozen foamy ocean, bearing at intervals upon its expanse the floating wrecks of rugged oaks with black distorted branches. The wind is keen and pure, stimulating the sense, bringing a crimson glow of health into the soft cheeks of the damsels, and perchance slightly touching the tips of their saucy little noses, giving them a charming bacchanalian air.

The sky is pale and cloudless, and the sun, though his rays be devoid of warmth, invests everything with cheerful radiance; each thorn bush glitters with diamonds, and the snowy plain coruscates with iris light. Anon we dive into a lonely hollow — once the haunt of birds – where a little stream used to prattle amid the wild cherry trees, now silent and sad. The horse-hoofs ring sharply on the ice, scattering around crystal fragments that echo on the ear in falling like clods upon the coffin of a beloved one; but another summer will gleam on either – an awakening from the trance of death.

As we strain up the opposed ascent we come unexpectedly upon a belated raccoon
that has strayed unwisely from his hollow tree in quest of provant. Alarmed at the encounter, he takes to fearful flight, pursued by derisive cheers.  Despite his snug fur and comfortable portliness of girth, whereof he now first apprehends certain inconveniences, he exhibits marvellous agility in his effort to avoid our society: his bushy tail streams in the air like a flag of defiance as he hastens across the open country, not with a run, but an interlinked series of convulsive springs. Needless terror — we have neither leisure nor inclination to pursue.

Now we crash through a forest, shaking the glittering icicles and scarlet berries from the thickets; startling the partridges that are pruning their feathers in the sunny openings, or the rabbits issued from their lairs to browse on the tender moss sheltered by the snow.

They start, not so much from fear as from surprise and discomposure; they seem to know that no murderous weapon is in our joyous host, for they only move a little out of our path and turn to gaze at us: we of the sterner sex for once sympathise in the gentle feelings with which the girls regard the harmless creatures, and forget our instinct of slaughter.

Thus we proceed, finding unwonted interest in common things, now in a dark ravine, now on a hilly crest, according to the undulations of the ground, appearing and disappearing alternately, like a skiff tossed upon heaving ocean billows, till, after a transit of eight miles, we reach our destination, a number of sleighs in the yard showing that the assemblage is large, and a cheerful crowd being assembled out of doors to greet us, warned of our approach by the ringing sleigh-bells. Relieving the damsels from their enthralment, we yield them to the embraces of the fair waiters in the porch.

Ah me! what prodigality of endearments do they lavish on each other, tantalising maliciously us envious bystanders! Then flutteringly they take flight, like a flock of doves, into some secret haunt hidden from profane eyes, about which we can only vaguely speculate, leaving us to unharness and care for our gallant horses, who seem to have truly enjoyed themselves, for their eyes sparkle, and their nostrils are distended, not having turned a hair. This duty accomplished, we enter the kitchen, the common hall, in company, to pay our respects to the good dame, whose fair, buxom face glows with smiles, though a “trace of anxiety may also be discerned, for she is on hospitable care intent.”

We do not seat ourselves, but cluster round the great fire, where lies a Christmas log that will burn a week, crackling loudly a cheerful welcome to us. And a very pleasant sensation is ours, for though not cold, it is an agreeable contrast to the outer atmosphere, and there is somewhat pleasing in all contrasts for a time. It flashes on the crockery and batterie de cuisine that glitters like silver on its shelves against the dark wainscot, reflecting its light fitfully, and penetrates even amid the shadows lurking in the rafters heavy with unctuous flitches.

The kitchen of a farmhouse is the room habitually used by the family; the parlour is rather for show and state occasions, and has a prim aspect, producing a feeling of constraint opposed to the ease and comfort inspired by the familiar aspect of the other, as a man is more at ease in his every day garments than in his Sunday coat and stiff cravat.

The kitchen generally occupies an entire end of the dwelling with its adjacent dairy, laundry, and store-room. Here assembled, we visitors of the ruder sex exchange talk on rural matters, the late harvest, the weather, and cattle, with an occasional gibe about some nascent love affair, trying to seem cheerful and careless as may be, though sometimes glancing furtively at the door in expectation of the re-appearance of the maidens, to meet whom in fact we chiefly came.

At last subdued, silvery laughter is heard at the door — it opens, and they blushingly, shyly enter, divested of their disfiguring travelling garb, and arrayed in neat stuff or cotton dresses, coming up in prim puritan fashion to their snowy throats, round which even are coyly wreathed silken kerchiefs. Their hair, hidden by no envious caps, is arranged in glossy folds uniting together in a Grecian knot, while in their faces is discernible a struggle between maiden bashfulness and timid pleasure.

The American girl, from the spirituality and delicacy of her features, and the fragility of her form, has always an air of great refinement, but unhappily she is not long-lived. After some hesitating compliments not displeasedly received, some shy stolen glances and timid words interchanged between secret lovers, the nominal business for which we assembled is entered on.

The young men, vieing in evincing their athletic strength before such bright eyes, bear in at a signal from the adjoining store-room great baskets of apples — Hesperian treasures that would have aroused our passionate admiration and desire in boyhood, and that might have been safely gratified without any subsequent retributive anguish or sad reflections consequent on unwise deglutition of immature enjoyments.

These are various in flavour and aspect — pale sea green — rich crimson – streaked red — amber — golden, similar to that the Trojan boy gave to the Queen of Love, whom we would surely imitate in presenting it to these fair women, her daughters, rather than to any other goddesses. The furniture having previously been all removed so as to leave the floor clear, it is now covered with the baskets of fruit brought in.

On their appearance, each maiden, from a supply displayed upon a side-table, takes a goodly needle and a ball of cotton yarn, symbols appropriate to her sex and indicative of her share in the coming operations: each youth produces a clasp knife — long, keen, and glittering. An accidental spectator might infer that these were the apples of discord — that he had chanced upon a passage of arms — the opening of a fray, wherein these stalwart rusties were about to contend for the smiles of those fair girls; and so truly they
are, though in a more favourable fashion, as is evidenced by the pleasant countenances of the actors.

Distinct groups are at once formed, a prodigious basket the nucleus of each, the sexes being pretty equally distributed according to their individual preferences, save when some rustic coquette has unfairly monopolised the attention of several lads, idlers perchance, fancy free, or fickle ones wiled from those legitimately entitled to their attendance.

Such an arrangement being likely to interfere with business, since there would be more flirting than apple-paring, Miss Sprague discountenances it by playful taunts, or direct injunction on the unfaithful to return to their forlorn damsels, who are silently remonstrating with sad entreating eyes. Acknowledged lovers select remote corners, or are delicately inducted therein, where they may indulge in those sweet words that never weary.

Seats there are none; but the floor is fair enough to eat from; and what attitude can better display the grace of a girl than a seat thereon, especially if she have pretty feet and ankles, as New England girls mostly have? And it may be ascertained directly who has not, by the discretion with which she withdraws hers from observation, so diverse from the skill evinced by others in the arrangement of their perverse drapery so as to show their beauty.

To work: a lad seizes an apple, and, in the twinkling of an eye, passes it to another, divested of its radiant skin. This one cuts it into longitudinal slips, so that the pips
drop out. These sections a girl threads as they fall, successively, in garlands containing the substance of from twenty to thirty apples. When the basket is exhausted, as has been ascertained by hands searching among the exuviae, and exchanging perchance a furtive pressure, the rinds are ejected, and the strung proceeds placed in their stead.

Those glowing fruit have disappeared, and there remain these strung fragments that in a few days will have shrivelled up into the semblance of leather; all the external beauty is destined to feed hogs l How similar to the metamorphosis of life, when the heart, losing all its freshness, degenerates into a tough muscular contrivance for the mechanical action necessary to money-making existence; when the radiance has faded that was its spiritual effluence and life, rejected as worthless, fit only for dreamers. Were it not perchance better that the apple should be eaten in all its beauty and aroma, than survive to such tasteless utilities!  Those whom the gods love die young. Is not the American partiality for dried apples speculatively characteristic?

To return to our apples. Much emulation prevails among the different groups in the rapid completion of their task. Successively the transformed results are borne into the store room to be replaced by fresh apples until the whole are completed.

The lads vie in exhibiting their dexterity with their knives before the damsels, who, nimble as are their fingers in threading the dissected fruit, are yet nimbler with their tongues in enlivening their attendants by that raillery between jest and earnest, that attracts, while bewildering as to its precise intent, of which the elucidation is vainly sought in the laughing eyes. Great is the hilarity, and the greater that the elders are not present to discourage it.

We ourselves have got into a quiet corner with a fair-haired beauty, who has been tormenting us for months. Her assent to the present fruit partnership has given us certain hopes; and we have been so earnestly gazing into the depths of her blue eyes, that we have neglected other duties; and when the rest have done a fabulous amount of work, we are found to be yet in our first basket, surrounded by the laughing rout, and overwhelmed by sarcastic offers of assistance; whereat we should wax wroth, were not comfort derivable from the conscious blush of the blue-eyed enslaver.

How many baskets of goodly fruit we have transformed into profitable ruin would need an arithmetician to calculate; old Abijah Sprague rubs his hands cheerily, and the buxom hostess is busy superintending the re-introduction of the banished tables. Candles have long been lighted superfluously, for the blaze of the fire has thrown sufficient light on our proceedings, leaving those convenient shadows that favoured an accidental clasp of hands, nay, even of a stolen kiss per chance.

The tables reinstated, preparations are made to recruit our weariness. Fat Jedediah  Holmes, the seat of whose soul must be his diaphragm, who had peeped into the larder, informed us early in the evening, in an unctuous whisper, of the various good things he had seen there, in meditation on which doubtless he has been engaged hitherto; his little eyes now twinkle with gladness as he sees the rustic delicacies arranged upon the festive board: cold roast pig — not a blossom, but a matured flower in all its swinish beauty and fragrance – flanked by roast turkeys, ham, grouse; baked beans, apple sauce, Indian bread, apple pies, delicate cakes of various kinds filling up the intervals. Cider sparkles in portly jugs, with coffee for those who prefer it.

Abijah acts as croupier to Miss Sprague, who invites the young folks to seat themselves on the long benches on either hand. Some tact is needed to seat the damsels as they would wish, without requiring them to state their preferences more openly than befits a maidenly reserve. We are placed next to those bewildering blue eyes, that are, however, provokingly directed to her plate – dear angel, what an excellent appetite she has! — but she is not singular; exercise, the cold weather, and a good conscience renders us all valiant trencher men and women: our friend Jedediah’s eyes fairly start from his head in consequence of his exertions; he is never gallant at meal times he is too busy. Fearing that he is unwell, from the distress he manifests toward the close of the symposium, we sympathisingly suggest a glass of water.

“You darned fool,” he gasps, thanklessly, “if I had room left for water, do you suppose I would not have eaten more pig?”

What could be replied to such an argument? At length, appetite being appeased, the guests rise, the tables again emigrate, and old Abijah produces that celebrated violin, at the sound of  which everybody becomes harmoniously convulsed. Everybody dances with everybody, and they do not seem at all lethargic after their late trencher – work. We ourselves dance a little to the inspiring rhythms of the “Arkansas Traveller” with the blue-eyed charmer.

But joys must have an end. We go out to the stables, for it is eleven o’clock, and harness up our teams; the damsels vanish to their secret retreat, shortly to reappear equipped for travel. Fresh kissing (among the ladies), hands shaken, farewells said, expressions of delight in having spent so pleasant an evening. The hospitable hostess makes her appearance with a prodigious jug, whence she presents the parting guest with a glass of some rich ambrosia, termed egg-nogg, designed, as she says in a motherly way, as a preventive to the cold night-air.

We enter our respective sleighs, departing in various directions. Again our gallant steeds breast the keen air, dashing homeward over the white plain beneath the glittering stars. Another sleigh going in the same direction, naturally a race ensues. The girls, dear creatures! becoming excited, urge on our too willing charioteer, the consequence of which is, that in the earnestness of the struggle, he runs us against a stump emergent from the snow, and with a sudden jar we are thrown out on the ground. But such an occurrence is devoid of danger, the snow yields to our weight, being soft as a feather bed. Arising thence laughingly, and shaking their ruffled plumage to free it from any adhering crystals, the damsels permit us to replace them, rather enjoying the occurrence than otherwise.

The night is musical with their ringing laughter and soft voices, and Phaeton beguiles the road by waking the astonished “night owl with a catch.” Towards the close of the journey, however, they mostly relapse into musing silence — for even joy wearies —  whence they are aroused only by the reappearance of the old familiar scenes. At length we descry the light in the happy home where love is waking; the watch-dog rushes out at the clangour of the approaching bells to welcome us with exultant look.

We reach the door, the revellers enter, the horses retreat to their warm bed, a murmur of glad voices arises, with questionings and replies, succeeded by a temporary silence; then the voice of prayer and praise ascends for the safe family reunion; the household separate to their respective dormitories; lights flit from room to room, but shortly are extinguished, and the house slumbers in darkness beneath the watchful stars, haunted perchance by dreams of the past gladness of the Apple-frolic

Francis Morton, November 1859

















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