The Mother of All Thanksgivings

Praise be to Sarah Josepha Hale, who set the table for all of us. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Google the word “Thanksgiving” and the Internet would have you believe it’s all about Thanksgivukkah, hellish travel plans, an arguably even more hellish Black Friday, football and how Miley Cyrus is going to ruin your holiday. Of course, we all learned about the creation myth of Thanksgiving in elementary school: The Pilgrims gathered with the Wampanoags in 1621 to celebrate their first harvest. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Thanksgiving was largely a New England holiday honoring the tenacity of the Pilgrims, but by the 19th century it had evolved into a national affair celebrating the family.

The woman behind this transformation was the oft-forgotten Sarah Josepha Hale, a leading female voice of the 19th century — a Martha Stewart meets Michelle Obama meets Oprah. It was her tireless, decades-long campaign that helped secure Thanksgiving’s role as a national holiday.

SarahHale Sarah Josepha Hale Alamy Born in 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire, Hale became a novelist and poet (she penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), a women’s rights activist (she donated money to open Vassar College) and the famed editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, the influential women’s magazine that became the most-read publication of the 19th century. From women’s fashion to interior design to cooking, Godey’s defined women’s role in the home. At the same time, Hale used the magazine to deliberately expand the “woman’s sphere,” advocating for the issues closest to her heart, including female education, women in medicine and property rights for married women.

Hale also spent decades lobbying to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. In an era when women’s roles were increasingly defined as wives and mothers (men, meanwhile, belonged in the public sphere), Hale’s ideal Thanksgiving would celebrate home and family — a holiday in which women could brandish their domestic influence. Women not only prepared the elaborate and festive meals but sat at the head of the table, literally taking their place as head of the family. (Hale set the culinary tone as well: Her 1827 novel, Northwood, included a chapter about a New England Thanksgiving feast, including the roasted turkey, cranberry sauce and pies.)

In a 1837 Godey’s editorial, Hale wrote that Thanksgiving:

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 ‘In-gathering,’ 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.

For the next three decades, in a sort of early version of a wildly successful social media campaign, Hale lobbied the American public to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. She wrote thousands of letters to politicians and influential people across the country. She petitioned five consecutive presidents (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln) and crafted editorial after editorial in the pages of Godey’s arguing for the importance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her position at the helm of Godey’s gave her the legitimacy and audience she needed, and her gender meant she could speak as an expert about the importance of a holiday uniquely focused on “women’s work”: the family, food and giving thanks.

In her September 28, 1863, letter to Lincoln, which is in the Library of Congress, Hale began:

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 [sic] fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution...

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln answered Hale’s pleas and proclaimed not one but two Thanksgiving holidays, the first on August 6 in celebration of the victory at Gettysburg, and the second on the last Thursday in November. With the Civil War raging, Thanksgiving symbolized not only a national holiday at a time when the country was divided by war, but also a holiday that honored the importance of family.

In 1939, Thanksgiving was set to fall on November 30, and the business and retail worlds worried that the holiday’s late date would affect Christmas shopping sales, especially in the midst of the country’s economic recovery. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by changing the holiday’s date  to the third Thursday in November. Americans were outraged; 16 states refused to make the change. Two years later, in 1941, Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving holiday. Hale’s lifelong quest — to turn Thanksgiving into a unifying holiday about family, as significant and widely observed as Independence Day (the only other national holiday of her era) — was fulfilled.

Historically, different generations have redefined Thanksgiving: For the Pilgrims, it was about gratitude to the Wampanoags (which was later critiqued as the settlers’ white oppression of Native Americans); for Hale, it was about celebrating family and expanding the domestic sphere; for Lincoln, the holiday helped unite the nation during wartime, and for FDR, it was a solution to economic issues. Today, consumerism often trumps Thanksgiving’s emphasis on family, especially with major retailers like Walmart, Kmart, Target and Macy’s now opening earlier on Thanksgiving (and some refusing to give their employees the day off). Yet Thanksgiving continues to evolve. Today, men are in the kitchen with women (or sometimes on their own) preparing elaborate meals. Many families integrate their own cultural foods and traditions into the celebration of Thanksgiving. This year’s Thanksgivukkah — a combination of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, which inconveniently began on the Wednesday before this year — is the most recent example. And in the midst of all this change, Thanksgiving remains true to Hale’s vision; it is our national holiday of thanks and celebration for the joys of home and family. Oh, and all of this.

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