History of Hymns of Thanksgiving

By Steven Ricks

There are a number of holidays we celebrate in this country.  Some are patriotic, in that they commemorate the birth of our nation, former presidents, and other great leaders.  Others are religious, celebrating important events in a variety of religious cultures.  Still others are focused on individuals or segments of our population.

Thanksgiving

Even though I enjoy all holidays and can find ways to celebrate each of them, I have always been especially fond of Thanksgiving.  There are probably a number of reasons it has appealed to me.  Most importantly, it was a day set aside by the first president of the United States in the earliest chapters of our country’s history to acknowledge and give thanks to a beneficent God for the preservation and protection of this blessed land.

Hymns of Thanksgiving began in 2003 with just some random ideas based on my appreciation for good music and my love of Thanksgiving traditions.  It seems that of all the holidays celebrated throughout the year, Thanksgiving spawns more honored family traditions than any other.  Each family or person asked about traditions associated with this celebration is usually eager and happy to share the memories and happiness fondly remembered about this season of the year.

My Family Tradition

When growing up, our family would gather in the kitchen of our home on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving to continue a tradition that had begun with my father’s grandparents.  Several different varieties of fresh and bottled fruits were assembled, paring knives were sharpened, and cutting boards were pulled from cabinets.  All family members and guests were invited to participate in cutting up the fruit into very small pieces in order to fill a pewter crock with home-made fresh fruit cocktail.

Conversation was lively at the tables set up for this home-style ‘manufacturing’ process, with kidding and jokes and the retelling of family stories abounding throughout the evening.  When the crock was filled to capacity with the assortment of grapefruit, oranges, apples, peaches, pears, pineapple, bananas, grapes, and other fruits, my father added some unsweetened pineapple juice, and then rolled up his sleeves, thoroughly washed up, and stuck is arm into the crock, using his hand to gently stir the mixture.  The objective of cutting the fruit into very small pieces and mixing it thoroughly was to ensure that each spoonful contained a variety of savory fruit chunks to be enjoyed.  Before the evening concluded, each ‘worker’ consumed a small dish of the fresh fruit cocktail, before Dad put a linen cloth over the open crock and moved it to a protected corner of the garage where it could cool overnight, but not freeze.

On Thanksgiving Day, each guest arriving at the Thanksgiving feast would see the table laid out with Mom’s best china reserved for just this special occasion.  Set in the middle of each dinner plate was a clear glass dish filled with the delicious fruit cocktail, but now with a maraschino cherry carefully laid on top.  After everyone was seated and after Dad had offered a lengthy prayer of gratitude, guests picked up a small dessert spoon and partook of the fruit cocktail, the traditional first course of our Thanksgiving meal.  Young children, who had not yet adjusted their palates to the rather tart flavor of this traditional family dish, were graciously excused from partaking.  Their dish of cocktail did not go to waste however, as other assembled adults quickly took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a second allotted portion.

After the meal and after all the dishes were cleaned up, washed, and dried by hand (my parents never owned a dishwasher), every family leaving the house was presented with a quart jar or two of the home-made fruit cocktail to take home and enjoy during the rest of the week.

Even though many of the persons who annually gathered around the family table so many years ago have passed away or moved to other parts of the country, this Ricks family Thanksgiving tradition continues with succeeding generations.  Susanne and I and our family also gather together on Wednesday night, before Thanksgiving, to make a batch of fresh fruit cocktail, carefully prepared just the way I was taught while growing up.  We even found a pewter crock at Orville Jackson’s in Eagle many years ago that we use as a container.  As with any meaningful family tradition, we hope that our children will see the value of continuing this and others as they raise their families.

Enjoying our own family traditions, and recognizing the great value of memorable and reliable traditions in our society and culture, once begun, it was hoped that Hymns of Thanksgiving would become a welcomed annual event in Treasure Valley.  However, at the time when ideas were just being developed into an event, there was no expectation whatsoever that Hymns of Thanksgiving would achieve the level of acceptance and reach the stature it now has.  To begin with just an idea of a very small localized musical celebration, and see it grow to an event televised throughout Idaho, has been not only gratifying, but miraculous.  My goal is to continue to improve the event each year.

Beginnings of Hymns of Thanksgiving

Music has been an important element of my life, and in the life of my wife, Susanne.  Although I took piano lessons for several years as a child and teenager, I was finally able to convince my mother that I had more of a future as a baseball player than a pianist, and therefore needed to spend more time playing baseball than the piano.  She reluctantly allowed me to discontinue taking piano lessons when I was about to enter high school.  Looking back, I realize that was one of the really dumb decisions I have made in my life.  Now, at my age, I can’t play baseball at all, and only very little piano.

My wife, Susanne, however, was much brighter when she was young, and continued taking piano lessons during her youth and into college.  While still in high school, she even taught young children piano lessons.  She is a very capable pianist and organist, and has accompanied soloists and choirs throughout her life.

Consequently, music has been accepted as an important aspect of the formal education of each of our children, and they all have either learned to play a musical instrument or participated in school choirs, or both.  Although their tastes in music are as unique as they are individual, nevertheless, they each have an appreciation for the benefits that music provides to them in their lives.

It was after Susanne and I had attended a spring music concert in which one of our daughters had sung in her college choir that we talked about the possibility of organizing a small event for our area, which was and is southwest Ada County.  Our thoughts centered on assembling a group of people from the area to form a small choir, select a choir director from among several musicians I knew, and have Susanne accompany the group.  Music that had some connection to the themes of Thanksgiving would be selected, and after a period of time for practicing, we would put on a celebratory concert for residents in the area.

I began talking about the idea to a number of acquaintances and before long, the idea had spread around the area by word-of-mouth, and I started receiving inquiries and offers to help as well as participate.  It wasn’t long before someone suggested that we should try to put together an orchestra as well as a choir.  At any rate, music was selected, choir participants were invited, friends with musical skills began contacting instrumentalists they knew, and the whole idea began to coalesce into a major project—one for which I was not prepared.

Realizing that even in its formative stages, this project had already outgrown the original ideas Susanne and I had discussed several months earlier, I invited a lawyer friend of mine to form an Idaho non-profit corporation in which to ‘house’ the event.  Recognizing the obvious need to obtain some financial funding for the event, it was felt that if donations could be tax deductible, there might be a possibility to attract some financial support from friends and businesses in this area.  So, Celebrations In Music, Inc. was incorporated in the summer of 2003, and remarkably, the Internal Revenue Service granted it nonprofit status within a few weeks of filing the application.  I started raising funds to pay for the expenses that were beginning to mount.

I talked with the personnel at Borah High School to determine if their new Auditorium would be available in which to present this celebratory event, which now had a name—Hymns of Thanksgiving.  They were very cooperative, and I was within a couple of days of renting the Auditorium to put on two performances of this inaugural event when I realized we had already outgrown the 900 seat capacity of that beautiful facility.  I then discussed the possibility of using the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts with its administrative staff, and thereafter signed a contract to put on two performances the week prior to Thanksgiving.  This decision tripled my expenses.

A friend had been invited to write a narration for Hymns of Thanksgiving, to be interspersed between the songs the choir and orchestra would perform.  The narration was intended to speak to the themes of Thanksgiving as well as introduce the different songs.  Once the narration had been written, it was necessary to invite someone to be the narrator.  I anticipated that this would be a man or a woman with a good speaking voice and commanding presence.  I considered a number of TV and radio personalities in the area, who I felt would be comfortable speaking in public.  I couldn’t settle on any one person, but I felt that by using the Morrison Center for our performing venue, the person invited should be someone of stature in the community.

One day I called the office of the Governor of Idaho and asked for and received an appointment with the Governor’s Chief of Staff.  When I arrived, I was given a very courteous hearing as I presented to him the very brief history of Hymns of Thanksgiving, and the purpose of my visit, which was to invite Governor Kempthorne to be the narrator for this event.  I left a copy of the narration and a list of the songs to be performed.  I was told that my invitation would be extended to the Governor, and that I would be notified the following week of his response.

The following week, as promised, I received a call from the Governor’s Office, in which I was asked if I would be willing to include both the Governor and First Lady as the narrators for Hymns of Thanksgiving.  Eagerly accepting this very generous offer, I now felt that the critical pieces of this new event were in place.  Our audio-visual personnel suggested that instead of having the narrators present their parts live, on stage, that we film them delivering the narration, and then project those images on a large screen set up behind the choir.  The Kempthornes were filmed in and around their home in Boise, and the filming was edited and formatted for presentation in the Morrison Center.

Finally, the Sunday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 2003, about 125 singers and 50 instrumentalists of the Hymns of Thanksgiving Choir and Orchestra and the Kempthornes presented a wonderful evening of music and messages in the Morrison Center, celebrating our nation’s season of Thanksgiving.  Musicians from all over Treasure Valley performed for large appreciative audiences.  A new Thanksgiving tradition had been inaugurated.

Growth of Hymns of Thanksgiving

So many positive comments were received following this first event in 2003, it was decided to continue to produce an annual Hymns of Thanksgiving, to be presented each year to the public during the week just prior to Thanksgiving.  Additionally, Governor and First Lady Kempthorne enjoyed the event so much, they suggested that efforts be directed to permitting all of Idaho to enjoy this annual celebratory event.

With the Governor’s encouragement, I met with the executive staff of Idaho Public Television and invited them to partner with me in filming Hymns of Thanksgiving in 2004 and then editing it and broadcasting it over the IPTV network on Thanksgiving Day.  Several meetings were held to settle on the details of this process, and the talented and dedicated people of IPTV were able to gather all the needed equipment and technical expertise to film one of the three performances presented in 2004, edit it for television, and then broadcast it during the evening of Thanksgiving Day.

Each year the program has been broadcast IPTV has received numerous positive comments, phone calls, emails, and cards and letters commending them for providing this program to their viewers.  For several years KTVB helped with the production of Hymns of Thanksgiving and broadcast the performance in its marketing area, and has received many positive reviews from the public.

The first three years of Hymns of Thanksgiving (2003-2005), Governor Dirk Kempthorne and First Lady Patricia Kempthorne participated as the narrators for the event.  Usually, the Capitol Building was used as the backdrop for the filming.  In 2006, when Governor Jim Risch and First Lady Vicki Risch were Idaho’s First Couple, they were invited to participate as the narrators for Hymns of Thanksgiving, and kindly consented.  Again, the filming took place in and around the Capitol Building in Boise.  The Risch family was also filmed in a public service announcement for the event that was run on television prior to the performance.

Another change was initiated in 2006, when Hymns of Thanksgiving was moved from the Morrison Center to the Taco Bell Arena on the campus of Boise State University.  There were a number of reasons for this change of venue.  I had been turning away many choir applicants each year because there simply was not enough room to accommodate more than 144 choir members on the stage of the Morrison Center, together with about 65 instrumentalists in the orchestra.  Furthermore, in order to meet the public demand, we were putting on performances on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and this was tiring for the musicians and their families.  By moving the event to a larger facility, we could increase the choir to about 300 singers with a full orchestra, and accommodate a large audience, thereby reducing the number of performances to one—on Sunday night before Thanksgiving.  So, in 2006, knowing that we would be presenting Hymns of Thanksgiving in the Taco Bell Arena, the size of the choir was doubled.  Also, through the generosity of some individual donors, concert tops were designed and made for the women of the choir, and matching ties were purchased for the men.

In 2007, Hymns of Thanksgiving was held in the Qwest Arena (now CenturyLink Arena) in downtown Boise.  Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter and First Lady Lori Otter continued the tradition bestowed upon Idaho’s “First Citizens” to provide the narration for the 2007 edition of Hymns of Thanksgiving.  They also participated every year thereafter, and plan to participate again this year.

In 2009, KTVB (Channel 7) teamed with KAID (Channel 4, IPTV) to film and broadcast the performance of Hymns of Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day and during the weekend after Thanksgiving Day.  This televised broadcast of Hymns of Thanksgiving 2009 was nominated for an Emmy by the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  In 2010, 2011, and 2012 KAID (Channel 4, IPTV) filmed and broadcast the performance throughout Idaho and KTVB broadcast the performance in the Treasure and Magic Valleys.  KTVB produced the televised program in 2013 and it was broadcast by KTVB and IPTV.  In 2014, 2015,and 2016 an independent television producer, Chris Daugherty of Chris Wade Media produced the event for television, and it was broadcast on KTVB and KAID on Thanksgiving Day.  He will also produce the 2017 edition of Hymns of Thanksgiving.

Directors and Soloists

One of the appreciated aspects of Hymns of Thanksgiving each year is the featuring of excellent local musicians as soloists, who add luster and quality to this celebratory event.  The directors and I ordinarily discuss the many talented musicians in the area who might be available to participate, and then settle on those to be invited to be soloists.  By invitation, concert pianist Del Parkinson, resident professor of music at Boise State University has been a soloist each year.  Other soloists have been Jennifer Dunn, violin; Stephanie German, oboe; Marta Johns, soprano; Larry Reeder, clarinet; Cy Gilbert, flute; Brookann Hessing, violin; Brian Hodges, cello; River City Sound, a local barbershop quartet;  Capital Brass, a local brass quintet; Amy Tompkins, viola; Dennis Keck, trumpet, Hymns of Thanksgiving String Octet; Anna-Marie Vargas, violin; Hymns of Thanksgiving Wind Quintet; Kylie Kofoed, soprano; Jennifer Whittle, violin; Kendra Hillier, soprano; Aaron King, cello; Tawna Love, piano; Brendan Grzanic, trumpet; Jonelle Darrow and Petra Schwartzoff, violins; and Jessie Brown, oboe.  As gifted and very talented musicians, they have all performed beautifully, adding a dimension to the program that has been greatly appreciated.

This valley has an abundance of musical talent.  With three major colleges/universities within 25 miles, several high schools, and numerous church and community choirs, we are blessed with many skilled music directors who have the ability to direct a large choir and/or orchestra.  It is a unique privilege to be invited to direct this large community choir and orchestra, as I know of no other choir of this size in Idaho.  Most church, school, or community choirs range from 15 to 100 singers, and it is quite rare to even approach 100 singers.  The Hymns of Thanksgiving Choir has stabilized at 274 members.   Although a larger choir could probably be formed, we are restricted to this number by the seating capacity of the CenturyLink Arena, where the public performance is held.

Over the years Hymns of Thanksgiving has been presented, a number of enormously talented musicians have been invited to direct the choir.  They have each enjoyed the experience immensely, and have enjoyed the respect and cooperation of the wonderful singers who have participated in the choir.  Karma Ellsworth, Tamara Williams, Debora Montgomery, Marta Johns, Karen Stratton, Jim Jirak, Linda Berg, and Marvin Stallcop have all directed the choir in past years.  In 2017, Jim Jirak and Marvin Stallcop will be on the podium, directing the Hymns of Thanksgiving Choir.

The orchestra for Hymns of Thanksgiving is assembled from talented musicians from around the Treasure Valley.  From 2005 to 2015 Marcellus Brown, of the BSU Music Department, has been the director of the Hymns of Thanksgiving Orchestra.  He will do so again in 2017.  Many of the orchestra players have participated in the orchestra since the beginning, but each year the orchestra is reorganized.  Again this year Jennie Ficks has accepted the responsibility to select the winds, brass, and percussion players for the orchestra.  Jonelle Darrow will be responsible to select the string players.  Together, they provide administrative leadership for the entire orchestra.

Organization of Choir and Orchestra

In the past, in order to organize the choir, I have sent written invitations to many community, church and university choirs and their directors, asking them to invite members of their choirs to participate in the Hymns of Thanksgiving Choir.  Additionally, I have also personally visited with local high school choir directors in Ada County, inviting them to select a few of their high school students to sing in the choir.  Because I wanted to increase the size of the choir from 144 to 274 in 2006, much time and effort was spent publicizing the opportunity to sing in this large community choir.  I visited church, college, and community choir rehearsals and extended personal invitations to the members of those choirs to participate in this annual event.  Eventually, we were able to organize a choir of just the right size for our seating capacity, and singers from every community in Canyon and Ada County were involved.

This year, email invitations will be sent to former choir members inviting them to participate again this year.  Although a new choir is organized each year, many participants from previous years want to continue singing, and they eagerly join the choir for the current year’s performance.  They have come to love the type and style of music which is selected for performance each year.   In 2014 Kirt and Lorrie Naylor began serving as the Choir Personnel Directors, and will do so again this year; and, together with sixteen Section Leaders, will select the choir from the applications submitted, provide leadership to the choir members, and maintain records and other tasks during the rehearsal schedule.

The Hymns of Thanksgiving Orchestra is organized a little differently.  It is not open to everyone who might wish to participate.  There are only so many positions available in the orchestra, as there are only so many parts for instrumentalists to play.  With a full percussion section, the orchestra needs between 65 and 70 instrumentalists each year to cover the required parts.  Many instrumentalists have been with the orchestra for many years and look forward to participating each autumn season.  Artistic Director Marcellus Brown and Orchestra Personnel Directors Jennie Ficks and Jonelle Darrow will make most of the decisions regarding the selection of instrumentalists.

There is one aspect of the Hymns of Thanksgiving Choir and Orchestra that is unique.  Many of the singers in the choir and players in the orchestra are, or have been professional musicians.  They are accustomed to being compensated for their musical talent when performing.  However, in the spirit of the season, Hymns of Thanksgiving is a gift to the Treasure Valley and the State of Idaho.  No musician, director, or soloist is paid for contributing his or her musical talents.  It is essentially a free-will offering, given out of love and respect for their country, state, and community.  It is their way of saying “Thank You” for the blessings of living in this great country and state.

Musicians who wish to participate in the Hymns of Thanksgiving Choir or Orchestra are encouraged to submit an application–which can only be submitted through this website.  Forms for this purpose are available on this website on either the Choir or Orchestra page.  For choir members, there are usually about a dozen rehearsals before the public performance.  For orchestra members, there will be about four rehearsals before the public performance.

Sponsors and Contributors

Even though Hymns of Thanksgiving is an event at which the Governor and First Lady of Idaho and other government officials traditionally participate, and even though it is taped and then broadcast over Idaho Public Television during the week of Thanksgiving, there is no state or local government funding provided to Hymns of Thanksgiving.  In the true spirit of Thanksgiving, many generous and caring citizens and businesses in Idaho provide the needed resources to produce and present this celebratory event.

Celebrations In Music, Inc., the producer of Hymns of Thanksgiving, is an Idaho nonprofit corporation.  Donations are used to purchase or rent music for the choir and orchestra, advertising, printing and mailing, leasing of the performance venue, use of audio/visual equipment, engineering, television production, and other related expenses.  No funds are used to compensate choir and orchestra members, directors, or soloists.

Why Hymns of Thanksgiving?

Although this uniquely American holiday has taken on additional and expanded meaning since the days of George Washington, its original purposes will always remain intact.  Additionally, when we pause to consider those blessings in our lives for which we are most grateful, our families and friends usually come to mind.  Consequently, a Thanksgiving season customarily combines such “themes” as gratitude, blessings, family, patriotism, prayer, praise, giving, and joy.  It seems these elements are easily accepted and openly celebrated by Americans of every political persuasion, religious belief, and ethnic heritage.  In other words, Thanksgiving has been and continues to be a celebration of the many good things we have in common.

In reality, Thanksgiving is probably the one national holiday which retains much of its original meaning and purpose.  My intent in organizing this public celebration each year is to do what I can to help keep it that way.