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The Mother of All Thanksgivings

In the last edition, we learned about proclamations of prayer and thanksgiving. Today, we will learn about the unstoppable force that motivated Abraham Lincoln to issue the proclamation which created the federal holiday celebrating the feast of Thanksgiving.

In this day and age of the hypothetical “war on women,” it is helpful to draw upon examples in U.S. History when women played a key role. And this is definitely one such example. Did you know that one of the most influential of all magazine editors of the 1800’s was a woman? Did you know that we have that same woman to thank for establishing a holiday which celebrates the relationship created between the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag nation. While both of those facts may be true, you can bet if Thanksgiving is celebrated at all in your child’s school there will certainly be no mention of Sarah Josepha Hale. It is, therefore, my pleasure to fill you in about the good Mrs. Hale’s accomplishments and efforts.

Who was Sarah Josepha Hale? Born in New Hampshire in 1788, you most likely have heard a certain nursery rhyme she authored. That would be “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and that would be enough of a legacy for most. But Sarah Josepha Hale was so much more. Educated by her mother, her brother, her husband and herself, Sarah Josepha Hale was a poet, a novelist, as well as an abolitionist and an advocate of certain rights for women. When her husband suddenly died of a stroke, Sarah was left with 5 very young children when she was only 34 herself.

This, of course, was during a time when women were not professionals, empire builders, or thought to be able to complete with men in the workplace. Many widows relied on charity, ran home based buisnesses, performing tasks such as spinning and weaving, or ran charity schools. While things were slowly beginning to change because of industrialization, women were still clearly religated to meek and subservient roles.  Sarah hoped she could support her family of six with her mind and a pen. She began by with collection of poems she had written. At that time, women authors were few and far between. Sarah sought assistance from members of the her husband’s Free Masons lodge. The book, published in 1823,  carried the rather taunting title The Genius of Oblivion.  It was in the second poetry collection, Poems for Our Children, published in 1830 which contained “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Before the second collection was published, she published a novel in 1827 entitled Northwood: Life North and South. It was in this novel, which included rich contextual descriptions of New England life that we can first see Sarah’s fascination with Thanksgiving.

The novel contained chapters entitled a Thanksgiving Sermon, as well as a Thanksgiving Dinner. The dinner that she detailed was characteristic of many Thanksgiving dinners served in New England. Let’s learn about what Sarah thought to include in the feast that was prepared without the modern benefits of life:  “And now for our Thanksgiving dinner. A long table, formed by placing two of the ordinary size together, was set forth in the parlor; which being the best room, and ornamented with the best furniture, was seldom used, except on important occasions. The finishing of the parlor was in a much better manner than that of any other apartment in the house; the wood work was painted cream color, and the plaster walls ornamented with paper hangings of gay tints and curious devices…The table, covered with a damask cloth, vieing in whiteness, and nearly equaling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romilly’s own hand, was now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion; and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family. The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being at this season of the year plentifully supplied and every one proud of displaying his abundance and prosperity.

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. The one now displayed could never have had many peers. Frankford has seen nothing like it, and recollected nothing in description bearing a comparison, excepting the famous pie served up to the witty King Charles II., and containing instead of the savory chicken the simple knight.

Plates of pickles preserves and butter and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers. A side table was literally loaded with the preparations for the second course placed there to obviate the necessity of leaving the apartment during the repast.”

While Mrs. Hale’s description of a Thanksgiving dinner was indeed lavish, records left to us by the Pilgrims indicate the meal that we think of as the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was far different from that described by Sarah Josepha Hale. The writings of Governor William Bradford indicate that while they most likely ate turkeys and waterfowl such as geese and ducks, they possibly ate swans, eagles, and cranes as well.  The Wampanoag ate vegetables such as turnips, nuts, and Jerusalem artichokes.  There may have been pumpkins and squash at the meal, but certainly not pumpkin pie.

Ah, not only have I made myself hungry, but I’ve digressed.  Let’s get back to the story of Sarah Josepha Hale.

Shortly after the completion of “Norwood,” Hale was approached to be the editor of “The Ladies’ Magazine” which was also known as the “Lady’s Magazine of London.”  Quite a feat for a female in the 1830’s.  In 1835, Halle published  another book Traits of American Life which included another reference to what must have become her favorite holiday.

One chapter in the work was entitled “The Thanksgiving of the Heart.” The story, about a widow named Margaret, demonstrated Sarah’s ability to share with her readers the deep sorrow she must have felt as a woman grieving the loss of her husband. However, she was also able to communicated the joy that was possible by sharing a meal such as Thanksgiving with others. The following is a quote from the story: “Our good ancestors were wise, even in their mirth. We have a standing proof of this in the season they chose for the celebration of our annual festiyal, the Thanksgiving. The funeral-faced month of November is thus made to wear a garland of joy, and instead of associating the days of fog, like our English relations, with sadness and suicide, we hail them as the era of gladness and good living.

There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participate. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature. The rich contemplate the enjoyments of the poor with complacency, and the poor regard the entertainments of the rich without envy, because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.”

In 1837, the Ladies’ Magazine was purchased by Louis Antoine Godey, and Hale became the editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book. You might be thinking that it is all well and good that a woman had come to be the editor of a magazine in the mid-1800’s, but really. So what? The what is that the “Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book” began with a circulation of 10,000. With Hale’s influence, the publication  became known as the “queen of the monthlies” with a circulation of more than 150,000 and a subscription rate of $3 per year.   While that may not seem much in this day and age, it was one dollar more than the subscription rate of the “Saturday Evening Post.”  Work contained within the magazine was exclusively written by Americans such as Edgar Allen Poe, and three issues each year featured only female authors.

As time passed, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote extensively about women’s rights.  In 1846 she wrote. “The time of action is now. We have to sow the fields—the harvest is sure. The greatest triumph of this progression is redeeming woman from her inferior position and placing her side by side with man, a help-mate for him in all his pursuits.” That being said, Mrs. Hale, a widow herself, was opposed to women’s suffrage, but used the power of the editorial page to promote improved wages for all women, as well as property rights for married women, However, there was another issue on her plate, so to speak, it was: Thanksgiving. It is not clear why it was such an issue for her, but she continued on with her campaign over time that began in her novel Norwood.

In 1837, she editorialized 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 ‘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 1847, Sarah noted in the journal: “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.”

For more than 20 years, Sarah continued on her campaign, and it interesting to note that Sarah’s focus on Thanksgiving seems to have had more to do with family, community, and even national relations than the Pilgrims. For example, in 1848, she wrote: “the appointment of the [Thanksgiving] day rests with the governors of each state; and hitherto, though the day of the week was always Thursday, that of the months had been varied. But the last Thursday of last November [1847] was kept as Thanksgiving Day in twenty-four of the twenty-nine states — all that kept such a feast at all. May the last Thursday of the next November witness this glad and glorious festival, this feast of the ingathering of harvest,‟ extended over our whole land, from the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Plymouth Rock to the Sunset Sea.”

As each year passed, Sarah continued to speak out championing the need for states and the Federal Government to adopt a Thanksgiving holiday. She included the following in an editorial written in 1860: “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 a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished. We have sought to reawaken and increase this sympathy, believing that the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people… We believe our Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”

Over the years, Sarah wrote to several presidents suggesting that a thanksgiving holiday be created. On September 28, 1863, Hale took a significant step in her quest for a Thanksgiving holiday. She wrote directly to President Abraham 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.

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. Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, 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.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established. Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth 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.”

It is unclear why Abraham Lincoln chose to act when his prededsors had not, but On October 3, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale was victorious in her campaign.

The following is the text of President Lincoln’s Proclamation:

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

So as this Thanksgiving approaches, please take a moment to be thankful for Sarah Josepha Hale. It is because of her strength, her perseverance, and her multi-decade dedication to the establishment of a national celebration of thanksgiving that we will be sitting down with friends and family the last Thursday of November next.

Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process.