Our story begins in 1846, not with Pilgrims and Plymouth but with a single woman. Sarah Josepha Hale was a writer, editor, and mother. And she is the person responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Why? What did she do? Let’s back up just a tiny bit and learn about where Thanksgiving comes from.
Where It All Started
Sarah Hale was a mother of 5 and a widow who went from writing poetry to writing novels. Eventually, she became a writer and editor for a magazine for women, Godey’s Lady’s Book. You even know one of the poems she wrote, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. She was a woman who did it all. She had a career while managing a family at a time when women were rarely taken seriously for their work outside the home. Sarah was a patriot who believed in America. She wrote stories and poems about the United States of America for her magazine. She worked to preserve the history of the American Revolution. Not only through her writing but by working to preserve monuments and George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.
Sarah was a New Englander, which meant she came from a part of the United States that already celebrated Thanksgiving. Much of New England celebrated some form of Thanksgiving, on various days between October and December. Most of the southern states did not celebrate Thanksgiving at all. This history may have more to do with ties to the old English Harvest Festival that many colonists would have celebrated in England than any specific event that happened in the Colonies. Or perhaps it was that the ministers of the northern churches liked the idea of a day of thanks.
Interestingly, there are celebrations of having a feast and being grateful for a year’s harvest to be found in many cultures around the world. But Sarah wanted an official holiday for the whole country. One day where everyone in the United States could sit down and eat a meal together and be grateful for what they have.
Fighting for Thanksgiving
Sarah Hale wrote to president after president campaigning for the holiday to be made official. She wrote to Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln. But she didn’t stop there. Sarah worked hard to create this holiday in the hearts and minds of the country. Her magazine published recipes, stories, poems, and crafts to go with Thanksgiving. At this point, Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most circulated periodical in the country. This is why the meals we all eat on the fourth Thursday in November are the same ones eaten in the US in the 1860s, instead of in the 1600s. The number of people reading Sarah’s articles and cooking Sarah’s recipes was at its peak at around 1860. Godey’s set the standard for what Thanksgiving should look like.
President Lincoln finally granted her request in 1863, 17 years after she started her campaign. Lincoln believed that a national day of thanks might help the country heal after the division of the Civil War. The propaganda of Thanksgiving being a holiday that went back hundreds of years was pushed to create a sense of unity in the country. Whether or not the story had any historical accuracy was secondary.
So where does that leave us now?
We now have a national holiday of giving thanks and eating turkey and cranberry sauce from New England. As a fan of all food, I believe the value of having a holiday centered around a good meal and plenty of desserts is valid. But it is important to appreciate the day for what it is and what it is not. On Thanksgiving, I don’t tell my children about the Pilgrims. Instead, we discuss the story of Sarah Hale, a patriot who thought her country would be better off if we all had a day to sit down, be grateful, and have dinner with our families.
By my math, Sarah’s oldest child was 30 when she began her campaign for Thanksgiving. I have often wondered if she had to create a national holiday to get her grown children to come home to have dinner with her. If so, I don’t blame her.
P. S. Do you want to learn more about Sarah Hale?
The podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class did an episode about Godey’s Lady’s Book and Sarah Josepha Hale back in 2019. If you enjoy podcasts, I highly recommend this one. The hosts are fun and they do a great job telling compelling stories that go beyond what you may have learned in history class.