Even though editor Sarah Josepha Hale might not recognize what Thanksgiving has become today, there’s no doubt that her pitch is the one that led to our turkey-eating, football-watching, family-dinner-that’s-really-a-pregame-for-shopping holiday in the States.
Sarah Josepha Hale was an influential woman of 60 when she came up with the plan of creating a new national holiday. She had spent her career editing Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most widely read publications in the United States, and advised women (and sometimes men) on matters of dress, food, and home – as long as they were in good taste.
But in 1846 she decided she wanted to wield her power to accomplish a different goal: a new national holiday. She dedicated many inches of her magazine and sent letters to five presidents seeking support for Thanksgiving. The holiday, in her mind, would be Christian centered and focused on prayer, eventually spreading around the world.
Thanksgiving wasn’t her idea, exactly. Setting a late fall day aside for the purpose of prayer and thanksgiving was common in NewEngland (a “good old puritan custom,” according to Sarah), though the practice was largely unknown west of the Mississippi. So in order recruit the entire country – or at least her readership – to her side, she wrote this first pitch for the holiday in 1847:
“OUR HOLIDAYS. –We have but two that we can call entirely national. The New Year is a holiday to all the world, and Christmas to all Christians–but the “Fourth of July” and “Thanksgiving Day” can only be enjoyed by Americans. The annual observance of Thanksgiving Day was, to be sure, mostly confined to the New England States, till within a few years. We are glad to see that this good old puritan custom is becoming popular through the Union…Would that the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day.Then, though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festival board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the blessing of the day…
The “Lady’s Book” then suggests that, from this year, 1847, henceforth and forever, as long as the Union endures, the last Thursday in November be the DAY set apart by every state for its annual Thanksgiving. Will not the whole press of the country advocate this suggestion?”
With the country growing in all directions, Hale clearly imagined a way to unite the disparate cultures and far-flung families across different regions under one banner – prayer and thanksgiving. And, okay, food.
It took quite some time – more than a decade, in fact – before her repeated pleas (she published them in Godey’s Lady’s Book annually) saw some measure of success. By 1851, 29 of the then 31 states were celebrating a sort of Thanksgiving holiday, though not on the same day. This was not okay with Hale, who believed she had picked the perfect date – farm laborers were largely done for the season, the election cycle had ended (praise be), summer laborers would have returned home, and the diseases that plagued the American South in the autumn had died down.
Sarah Hale doubled down on her efforts. Her editorials grew longer, extolling the benefits of her “feast of gladness, rendering thanks to Almighty God for the blessings of the year” and a day that “would exemplify the joy of Christians.”
By 1860, her holiday was being consistently celebrated on her chosen date, and she was ready to declare victory…except there was one small problem. The president had not yet signed off to make it an official national holiday.
Hale used the start of the Civil War, including the need for national unity as a selling point:
“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.”
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelt in the heavens,” and asked that Americans should ask the Almighty to “heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it…to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
And it wasn’t until 80 years later, in 1941, that Roosevelt’s administration established the modern Thanksgiving tradition and solidified the date as the 4th Thursday in November.
And now we get to say: Happy Turkey Day, everyone!
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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