Remembering the Mother of Thanksgiving

After nearly 40 years of trying, she finally got her national holiday

As we gather around our (likely smaller and socially distanced) tables this year to celebrate the annual tradition that is Thanksgiving in the United States, it is worth a quick history lesson on how the holiday most known today for turkey, pumpkin pie, and watching football on the couch actually came to be—and an introduction to the woman who willed it into existence.

Most of us learned in school about a seemingly mythical Thanksgiving celebration set in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the year 1621, at which Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to share in the bounty of that season's harvest—the Pilgrims’ first since arriving in the New World. There is evidence, however, of thanksgiving celebrations going back even further—including as early as 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. And there is even a case to be made that it was Florida that actually hosted America's first thanksgiving celebration in 1565 when 800 Spanish settlers participated in a Catholic ceremony to thank God for their safe arrival to the newly christened settlement of St. Augustine.

Of course, those are just the American versions. Many similar celebrations were held for centuries beforehand, including in the countries throughout Europe from which those early American settlers came.

Whichever was actually the first American thanksgiving celebration, the holiday, in the sense that most of us think of it today, does trace its roots to New England, where it became a recognized and regularly observed holiday in the 18th century. President George Washington even attempted to make it a national holiday of sorts, when he declared a day of public thanksgiving in 1789. But it didn't last. President Thomas Jefferson and others, especially in the South, ultimately refused to observe it, viewing the holiday as a violation of the separation of church and state upon which the nation was founded—as well as an attempt to force New England morality on the rest of the country. Yes, even the idea of having a Thanksgiving holiday was once a political firestorm. And we think we have it bad today.

In the early-1800s, as the country struggled with warring political factions and severe divisiveness between North and South, one woman believed that a national day of thanks was exactly what was needed to bring the country together.

That woman was Sarah Josepha Hale. Born in 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire, Hale was a self-educated writer, who would go on to become one of the most influential voices of her time. She was famous for many things, including writing one of the first novels that tackled the thorny subject of slavery (which she opposed), authoring over 50 books (including many that celebrated the influence of women throughout history), and penning the still-popular children's poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," originally "Mary's Lamb."

But perhaps her most influential role was that of editor—or as she called herself "Editress"—of Godey's Lady Book, the premier women's publication of its day, which arguably had more impact on the culture and tastes of the nation's women than any other publication—at its time or since. In 1930, TIME magazine called it “[b]y far the most phenomenally successful of any magazine issued before the Civil War."

With Hale at the helm for over 40 years until the age of 89 (who needs retirement?), Godey's Lady Book covered topics from fashion and cooking to literature and morality—popularizing ideas from white wedding dresses to Christmas trees. Uncommon at the time, Hale's work was popular both with Northerners and Southerners and often included articles citing examples of the two factions coming together.

Hale first took up the cause of popularizing Thanksgiving and lobbying for it as a national holiday in her 1827 novel, Northwood, in which she devoted an entire chapter to vivid descriptions of everything from table settings to cuisine in what is the earliest known description of something resembling a modern Thanksgiving. See excerpt below.

"The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast....On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant wine, and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer ....”

At the time, Thanksgiving was still a mostly Northern holiday—virtually unknown in the South, but even in New England, the birthplace of the modern holiday, there was no consensus on when such a celebration should take place, with states celebrating it on varying dates between October and January.

Hale foresaw what Thanksgiving could ultimately mean to the country, and she set out on what would be a multi-decade crusade for the creation of a national Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1837, she penned an editorial in Godey's calling for the day to be observed nationally, noting the benefits of bringing families together:

“might, without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday in the month, throughout all New England; and also in our sister states, who have engrafted it upon their social system. It would then have a national character, which would, eventually, induce all the states to join in the commemoration of “Ingathering,” which it celebrates. It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart – the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.”

In 1846, she attempted to get it done state by state, writing:

“The Governor of New Hampshire has appointed Thursday, November 25th, as the day of annual thanksgiving in that state. We hope every governor in the twenty-nine states will appoint the same day -- 25th of November -- as the day of thanksgiving! Then the whole land would rejoice at once.”

In 1859, as the country drew closer to civil war, her Thanksgiving rationale centered more and more on the argument that such a national holiday would help to bridge the country's divides. She wrote:

"We are already spread and mingled over the Union. Each year, by bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations; each year multiplies our ties of relationship and friendship. How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law? and who is a better fellow than our wife's uncle from St. Louis? If Maine itself be a great way off, and almost nowhere, on the contrary, a dozen splendid fellows hail from Kennebec County, and your wife is a down-Easter.”

She wrote editorials and articles. She wrote to governors, military generals, and presidents. In fact, during the course of her multi-decade campaign, she would write to five different presidents on the subject: Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln.

It was with Lincoln where she finally had success. She wrote to him on September 28, 1863, during the midst of the Civil War and just a few short months after The Battle of Gettysburg. She wrote the following (excerpts here, link to the full letter below):

"Sir.-- Permit me, as Editress of the "Lady's Book", to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and -- as I trust -- even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival. You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution... it has occurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment....Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat <you> to put forth (t)his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured"

Her persistence paid off.

Less than a week later, Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward had drafted Lincoln's official proposition for the national observance of Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November, a move the two men hoped would "heal the wounds of the nation."'

She had done it. After nearly 40 years of trying, Hale got her national holiday.

A few more tweaks would be made over the next hundred years or so, including a joint resolution from both houses of the U.S. Congress to officially recognize the holiday in 1942, and to move it from the final Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November, but for all intents and purposes, once Lincoln signed off, the deal was done. America had its Thanksgiving. And it had a pesky, self-educated New Hampshire born woman to thank for it.

So what can we learn from this gone, but hopefully not forgotten Mother of Thanksgiving? For me, it’s two things:

1) the absolute dogged persistence that this woman showed over the course of decades. One would think that many others would have quit along the way. Not Hale—she had a vision. And well into her later years, she remained absolutely committed to seeing it through. There is a lesson in that.

2) the idea of Thanksgiving as a holiday to bring people together. I think this idea remains today—especially in the sense of bringing families together—even if it does tend to get overshadowed by turkey and football. But Hale’s notion of this day as one of bringing the country together—in her case, during the nation’s most trying time, the Civil War—still has much relevance today. I think there’s a lesson in that as well.

So there you have it. The story of how the modern Thanksgiving came into existence. As you sit back today and (I hope) enjoy a wonderful feast, take a moment to raise a glass to Sarah Josepha Hale—whose vision of this ‘day of thanks’ we all still benefit from today.

Sources: - You can find Hale’s letter to Lincoln as well as his proclamation here