On Thanksgiving morning, when most households are busy preparing the traditional family feast, some Virginia residents will gather for a different sort of tradition, one that dates back to the 8th century.
In the small town of Keswick, just northeast of Charlottesville in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and on the grounds of the Belmont Plantation outside of Leesburg, people will congregate for the Blessing of the Hounds, a brief ceremony before the Thanksgiving Day fox hunt.
"It's a colorful and inspirational service -- one that I've never missed since we moved here nine years ago," said Mrs. William Brice White, a Keswick resident originally from Bucks County, Pa.
The 130-year-old Grace Episcopal Church in Keswick is one of the few churches in America that still celebrates the tradition, said the Rev. Stuart H. Henderson, minister. Henderson said he knows of only three other churches in the country where the tradition is observed: ones in Maryland, Connecticut and Ohio.
But the Fairfax Hunt Club also observes the tradition, and will conduct its own blessing of the hounds Thanksgiving morning at the Belmont Plantation on Route 7. There, different ministers from churches in the area are invited to conduct the ceremony each year, said Randolph Rouse, master of the fox hounds for the Fairfax Hunt Club for the past 20 years.
Local horsemen clad in their hunting gear -- boots, light jodhpurs, scarlet jackets and velvet caps -- will bring their horses and hounds to both sites for the mid-morning ceremonies. In Keswick, all will gather in the courtyard in front of the church for the 35-minute ceremony, which consists of hymns, prayers, readings and, of course, the blessing.
The congregation, in varied degrees of formal dress, stands in a semicircle under the old trees in the church yard. In the distance, beyond the fence across the road, are the rolling fields where the hunt will take place.
Members of the congregation decorate the church portico early Thanksgiving Day with arrangements of pumpkins and dried cornstalks, adding a festive touch, Henderson said. In recent years, the local high school brass ensemble has played for the service.
At the Belmont Plantation, about 45 hunters are expected to participate in the ceremony, which will last only about 15 minutes but otherwise will be comparable to the Keswick ceremony. Rouse said it's become a Thanksgiving tradition he wouldn't miss -- and he hasn't in the 20 years he's been master of the hounds for the Fairfax club.
The Blessing of the Hounds is a hunting tradition that was begun in Europe by St. Hubert of Liege, who later became the patron saint of hunters. It came to this country with the colonists.
At Grace Episcopal Church, the service was started in 1928 by a British rector who sought to bolster the flagging attendance by fox hunters on the days a hunt was scheduled.
The service has continued annually ever since. Today, most members of the Keswick Hunt Club attend the service, according to Jake Carle, who for the past 17 years has been master of the fox hounds at the club.
Carle, who has attended the outdoor service since he was 7 years old, said members of the hunt club look forward to the annual Blessing of the Hounds. "It's become a tradition in the area," he said. "I'm not a particularly religious man, but I feel closer to God outdoors than I do when I'm confined inside four walls."
As for the hounds, they "actually seem to appreciate" the blessing, Carle said.
Ten hounds -- the older ones that are less likely to interrupt the ceremony -- are brought to the service with their horsemen; others wait in the fields across the road.
About 50 fox hunters, including women and children, generally participate in the ceremony. Carle said members of the Glenmore Hunt Club in nearby Staunton may participate this year. After the blessing and benediction, members of the congregation cross the narrow road in front of the church to watch the start of the hunt. The hunt generally lasts four or five hours, although it may end much sooner if there is no fox to be found, Carle said.
The service has attracted increasingly large crowds to the church each year. Henderson said the expected group of about 800 spectators is about four times the church membership.
Although many spectators are from outside Albermarle County, there are those Keswick residents like White and Carle who have attended the ceremony for years. Added Thomas E. Link, of Trevillians: "The Blessing of the Hounds is a warm perspective on the traditional celebration of Thanksgiving."
The services begin at 10 a.m. Thanksgiving Day at Grace Episcopal Church, located on Route 23 in Keswick, about 90 minutes by car from Northern Virginia, and at the Belmont Plantation on Route 7 near Leesburg. Services at both sites are open to the public.