Forget football, in Maryland's horse country foxhunting is the Thanksgiving Day sport

The turkeys were roasted, potatoes mashed, onions creamed; it was barely sunup. For the crowd in the cold Maryland countryside, Thanksgiving morning wasn’t for cooking.

Not when their holiday tradition involves beaver-skin hats, scarlet coats and a century-old horseback chase across the farmlands of Monkton. Tallyho!

“You will find people who are probably in trouble for being late to dinner,” said Jay Young, an attorney with a white stock-tie around his neck. “My wife has given me hell more than once.”

Hundreds of families braced against the chill Thursday for an old English tradition with a Maryland twist: the Thanksgiving Day blessing of the hunt.

For more than 100 years, foxhunting clubs of Maryland have come to countryside churches for an Episcopal blessing on Thanksgiving Day, and modern times have seen the custom grow beyond a dedicated few in black boots and breeches.

Outside Saint James Episcopal Church in Monkton, spectators mixed Bloody Marys and dished breakfast potatoes. They set taxidermy foxes atop pickups. Radios played. As the revelers like to say, theirs is the only church-condoned tailgate party.

“In the 18 years that I’ve been doing it, it has really grown spectacularly, so much so that we need traffic control,” said Larry Haislip, with the Elkridge-Harford Hounds.

In the crowd, Amy Blackstock shivered and laughed. Having watched the foxhunt for six years, she has learned to clean her house, set her table and roast her turkey beforehand.

“A couple years ago I decided not to put the turkey in until after we got back,” she said. “Don’t do that.”

That year, dinner came at night.

Meanwhile, 15 miles away, old sports with the Green Spring Valley Hounds received their own blessing at Saint John’s Church, Western Run Parish in the Worthington Valley of Reisterstown.

Maryland has seven foxhunting clubs, including the two in Baltimore County. The western county belongs to the Green Spring Hounds; the eastern, the 140-year-old Elkridge-Harford Hounds.

The Masters of Foxhounds Association counts about 160 foxhunting clubs around the country. Officials say most clubs receive blessings in September and October. A Thanksgiving benediction may be a distinctly Maryland custom.

“We always do it on Thanksgiving. I’m not sure why,” said Sheila Brown, a master of the hunt with the Green Spring Hounds. “It’s tradition, but also giving thanks for the countryside, our friends and family.”

Since the 1920s, her club had come to St. John’s Church on Thanksgiving for a blessing. And in a gesture that brings her own holiday full circle, Brown will leave her turkey scraps for the foxes that live behind her barn.

After the pageantry each year — the blessing, the horn call, the huzzahs — huntsmen and hounds set off across the countryside (they ask neighbors for permission). In practice, it’s less hunting, more following.

The hounds follow the fox. The riders follow the hounds. There are no rifles, and no dead foxes.

It’s a sport of horsemanship, requiring riders to cross streams and jump fences. But the fox usually outruns them all to the safety of its den. Then they call off the hounds.

Foxhounds hunt by smell, not sight. Sometimes a fox watches from afar while the hounds run in circles.

“You can’t help but think he’s snickering,” said Young, the president emeritus of the Elkridge-Harford club.

Some prefer to call the sport “fox chasing.”

“A lot of people who aren’t exposed to it look at these old foxhunting scenes and think that’s antiquity and it happened generations ago,” Young said. “They show up, and they say, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re still wearing the same thing? My great-grandfather had a painting like that.’ ”

After all, George Washington had his own pack of hounds.

Thursday morning, Young doffed his top hat to enter Saint James for the service before the hunt. The Rev. Joe Cochran presented the story of Saint Hubert, the patron of hunters, who lived 1,300 years ago.

According to the tale, Hubert withdrew deep into the forests of France and a life of hunting after his wife died during childbirth. On Good Friday, he confronted a stag with a crucifix shining between its antlers.

The voice of God commanded Hubert back to the church.

“You hunters today, watch out for foxes wearing crucifixes,” Cochran told them, “and if a fox says something to you, I want to hear about it.”

They laughed. Then the congregants and clergy processed outside. They stopped on the hill above the pony ring.

Below, dozens of riders trotted in circles; they ranged from children to grandparents, laborers to doctors. Hounds scampered among them.

An acolyte raised a staff with the gold crucifix; the tailgate crowd quieted.

Back home, tables were set, turkeys roasted, guests coming.

Then Cochran repeated the blessing that’s been heard over the hills for generations.

“Keep, oh Lord, this day bright, the horses sure of foot, the hounds swift, the fox elusive, the hunters safe. And may all come safely to their homes.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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