Thoreau had left his cabin in the woods nine years earlier; his book Walden had been published two years earlier and established his literary reputation. His wanderings on that Fast Day evoked memories of baseball, which he had either played or watched. Baseball historian Larry McCray reckoned Thoreau remembered games played around 1830 — well before Abner Doubleday supposedly invented the game in 1839.
The Puritans had brought Fast Day to New England, and the tradition lingered in New Hampshire until 1991. They were originally observed in response to a specific event — sickness, a fire, a bad crop, a military disaster or a weather event, for example. Then they evolved into an annual event in April, just before the crops went in. Massachusetts observed it on the third Monday in April, New Hampshire the last Thursday and then the fourth Monday. Maine observed it, too.
Fast Day lasted from sunrise to sundown. People were expected to fast, listen to a sermon in church and then spend the rest of the day in sober reflection. Baseball did not count as a sanctioned activity.
From Thoreau’s diary, though, it seems the spirit had started to go out of the day. The shops may or may not have shut, the family may or many not have observed the day with a big meal after sunset, he wrote.
…the uncertainty I always experienced whether the shops would be shut, whether we should have an ordinary dinner, an extraordinary one, or none at all, and whether there would be more than one service at the meeting-house. This last uncertainty old folks share with me.
Fast Day also lost steam in Maine. According to one story, the governor left his secretary to write the proclamation declaring April 17 the holiday. The secretary, a bit of a prankster, began the proclamation with the following:
Having consulted my Council and learned that none of them has an engagement to dine on that day, and feeling fully assured that I shall receive no invitation to dine out until the high school graduating exercises begin and field strawberries get down to eight cents a quart, I do hereby appoint Thursday, the 17th day of April as a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer.
He very nearly got away with the joke, but Maine abolished the holiday shortly after Massachusetts did away with it in 1894.
A Sporting Holiday
Massachusetts replaced Fast Day with Patriots Day. Three years later, the Boston Athletic Association organized the first Boston Marathon on Patriots Day. According to Thoreau and others, it had already been a sporting holiday.
Thoreau wrote in his diary
April 10. Thursday. Fast-Day. Some fields are dried sufficiently for the games of ball with which this season is commonly ushered in. I associated this day, when I can remember it, with games of baseball played over behind the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow where the snow was just melted and dried up,
This is a windy day, drying up the fields, the first we have had in a long time.
McCray, the baseball historian, noted at least 199 other references to ballplaying from 1770 to 1830. Soldiers played it during the American Revolution, and people played it on holidays. And the holiday most strongly associated with ballplaying, he wrote,wais Fast Day.
The earliest of the 14 references to Fast Day play appears in an autobiography covering the 1820s, which slyly reports that although Fast Day ballplaying was then unlawful under Connecticut code, certain “wicked boys” would find a secluded place to play anyway.
In 1862, two Union Army regiments from Massachusetts played baseball on Fast Day in their Virginia and Maryland encampments. And according to an 1883 history of Philips Exeter Academy, the old people remembered that baseball was regularly played on the holiday.
New Hampshire Ditches Fast Day
New Hampshire held on to its quaint Fast Day custom for another century. It evolved into a quirky antique that marked the beginning of tourist season rather than planting season.
But then New Hampshire, amid much finger pointing, dragged its feet in establishing Martin Luther King Day. The New Hampshire Legislature finally replaced Fast Day with Civil Rights Day in 1991. Lawmakers later changed it to Martin Luther King Day.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Meetinghouse By Hikeramc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41799200.