The Godmother of Thanksgiving

Everyone knows the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sitting down to break bread in Plymouth for the first Thanksgiving feast. It’s the subject of countless elementary school lessons, which typically end with turkeys made out of construction paper. It’s also the subject of countless debates over how it “really” happened, which typically end in heated arguments.

But does anyone know the story of the Sarah Josepha Hale, the so-called “Godmother of Thanksgiving”? Hale was the influential editor of the most widely read magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book, who used her perch to revive the national holiday.

Although Americans today view Thanksgiving as one of the nation’s foremost holidays, it wasn’t always so. The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777 as a solemn day for people to “express the grateful feelings of their hearts” and “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins.” Parades and football this was not. But the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which individual states chose their own days and their own ways to celebrate.

But Hale wanted something more for the holiday. In the first year of her editorship of the magazine she suggested that Thanksgiving

“might, without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday of 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 affectations 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.”

The problem, Hale opined in a later editorial, was that “the appointment of the day rests with the governors of each state; and hitherto, though the day of the week was always Thursday, that of the months has been varied.” Though she dared not write it, Hale’s driving force ran much deeper. She saw that slavery was threatening to tear the nation asunder, that the regional differences between North and South were fast becoming too much the country to bear.

“Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished,” she wrote in 1860. In order to “reawaken and increase this sympathy,” she believed that Thanksgiving Day had to be “fixed and perpetuated.”

Sadly, it was not to be so. less than a year later, the Civil War began. Undaunted, Hale didn’t give up. Instead, she shifted tactics, appealing to the president rather than the people for change. It worked. On October 3, 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving.

“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict,” Lincoln wrote.

Amazingly, Lincoln went on to express thankfulness for “the blessings of fruitful fields,” “healthful skies,” that the war had “not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship,” that the “ax has enlarged our borders,” that the mines have “yielded more abundantly,” and that “population has steadily increased.”

Lincoln’s words are a lesson in how far we have come and how far we have to go. We are no longer at war with ourselves and yet internal strife is still present. The boundaries are no longer North versus South, but political left versus right. And while there is no doubt that we differ, often vociferously, on our methods, our goal is largely the same: To bring peace and prosperity to all of America.

So this Thanksgiving let’s remember Sarah Josepha Hale and the holiday she worked so hard to re-create. She wasn’t fighting for turkey and football and political bickering around the dining table, she wanted a holiday to unite a fractured nation. She wanted a time where families, regardless of location or political affiliation, would all celebrate at once. Despite our differences we have a lot to be thankful for. Today, if only for one day, let’s put aside our petty disagreements, our political differences, and our policy divisions, and simply celebrate the bountiful blessings we enjoy.