This week, 53 million Americans will travel by planes, trains and automobiles to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends: eating turkey, watching football and, of course, expressing gratitude for their blessings and good fortune. But how much do we really know about the origins of this holiday? Why do we gather the last Thursday of each November specifically for the purpose of giving thanks?
Perhaps a good number of people can trace the Thanksgiving feast back to its colonial roots, 400 years ago, when Pilgrims and Native Americans assembled for a three-day festival in Plymouth, Massachusetts to celebrate the end of a successful harvest. This much we learn in grade school.
However, probably very few people know the name of the person perhaps most responsible for the annual and national celebration of Thanksgiving – a person so passionate about the holiday and its purpose that she dedicated much of her life to seeing it properly recognized. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale was a New England-born poet, editor, activist and philanthropist perhaps best known for penning the poem “Mary’s Lamb,” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” as it is known today. This “Lady Editor” worked to create pathways to opportunity for women, making the education of women a journalistic priority and philanthropic mission.
After the critical success of her first novel, “Northwood: Or Life North And South, Showing The True Character Of Both,” which offered an anti-slavery critique, Hale accepted a position as editor of the journal Ladies’ Magazine, later renamed Godey’s Lady’s Book, a post she held for 50 years until her retirement at the age of 89.
She regularly wrote and published articles and editorials extolling the benefits of women’s education. “In this age of innovation perhaps no experiment will have an influence more important on the character and happiness of our society than the granting to females the advantages of a systematic and thorough education,” Hale wrote in the first issue Ladies’ Magazine, at a time when only half of American women were taught to read.
Hale also played a key role in the founding of Vassar College, just the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the U.S. at the time. Her “Woman’s Record, Or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women: From the Creation to A.D. 1854,” was an ambitious effort to create an encyclopedia of sorts, noting the accomplishments of women throughout history.
Hale’s interests also included preserving the history of America and honoring the nation’s founding principles. She used a women’s fair to raise funds necessary to complete the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, and engaged readers to help preserve Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, along the way destroying stereotypes about what women could accomplish through philanthropy.
In addition to this, Hale, a widowed mother of five, founded the Seaman’s Aid Society to provide “job training, financial opportunities and social support for impoverished wives and children of sailors.”
Among these passionate interests and campaigns for public good, there was one other for which Hale would become well-known in her day: her decades-long campaign to establish a National Day of Thanksgiving.
Unity Through Gratitude
Thanksgiving celebrations were sporadic throughout the colonies in the late 1700s when Hale was growing up. In New England, though, where Hale was raised, the holiday became popular.
Hale maintained a deep respect for the purpose and traditions associated with Thanksgiving throughout her life, and felt strongly that it should be a national celebration. She believed this national day of thanks would help to unify families who had been geographically separated as the country quickly expanded from 13 colonies to 30 states in the mid-1800s. As she wrote in one of her many editorials in support of Thanksgiving:
“[Though] the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the feast. From the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to gladness simultaneously.”
Beginning in 1846, through her magazine and personal letters, Hale made her case to each successive president to establish Thanksgiving as a national annual celebration. Presidents James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan all received appeals from Hale, who by that time was a well-established “editress” of Godey’s Ladies Book.
However, in 1863, Hale finally found a sympathetic ear in the White House. With the nation torn apart by the Civil War, Hale made an appeal to President Lincoln:
“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.”
Just five days later, President Lincoln did as Hale requested, issuing a proclamation to establish a National Day of Thanksgiving each year on the last Thursday of November, so the American people could celebrate grace and good fortune “with one heart and one voice.” Several years later, Congress passed legislation making Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Given her incredible passion for the holiday and her tireless campaign to see it recognized by all Americans, Hale will forever be known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”