Most of us know some sort of barebones history about the origins of Thanksgiving, that three-day feast in 1621 at the Pilgrim colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It included some of the colony’s Native American allies from the Wampanoag tribe and their chief, Massasoit. Taught among other survival skills how to plant corn by English-speaking Squanto (a member of the confederation of Wampanoag tribes), the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate both their survival and their successful harvest.
But what about the 19th-century writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale? Ever hear of her in relation to Thanksgiving?
A Woman of Accomplishment and a Defender of Tradition
In her own day, Sarah Hale (1788–1879) was quite the celebrity.
For one, Hale was a New England poet whose most famous work—“Mary Had a Little Lamb”—is still known and recited by American youngsters. She turned to writing and poetry as a means of income to support herself and her five children after her husband died in the ninth year of their marriage.
Hale’s literary accomplishments led to her appointment as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a women’s periodical that she made into the most popular magazine in the country. In addition to her editing skills and business acumen, for 40 years Hale wrote columns as well.
She was a staunch abolitionist but extolled the traditional roles of women as wives and mothers, and opposed women’s vote. Though criticized as being too traditional in her views, Hale’s position as editor and her writing made her, according to the online Encyclopedia, “perhaps the most widely known and most influential women of her time.”
Hale also championed restoring or building various historical sites. Through her advocacy and her fundraising, for example, she helped preserve George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and worked tirelessly soliciting money for the building of the monument that now stands at Bunker Hill.
But one more jewel belongs in the diadem of this remarkable woman.
The Mother of Thanksgiving
For years, Sarah Hale, through articles and scores of letters, pushed politicians to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Though New Englanders had long celebrated the occasion—the dates varied from state to state—Thanksgiving did not resonate with the rest of the country.
In 1789, George Washington declared a day of national thanksgiving to honor the victory of the American Revolution and the passage of the Constitution, and John Adams and James Madison did likewise during their presidencies. But otherwise, American leaders showed little interest in this celebration until 1863.
It was in that year—when the country was engaged in a brutal civil war—that Hale, who for 36 years had pushed for a national day of giving thanks, wrote to President Lincoln about this idea and was finally rewarded with success. In his proclamation to the nation, Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as “A National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” on which Americans were to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
As a result, Sarah Hale earned the nickname of the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
Many Americans share certain traditions on Thanksgiving Day. Families gather together, and turkey and dressing, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie are fixtures on the menu. Some watch televised football games or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The ongoing pandemic has changed some of these activities, with governors in some states issuing edicts about how Thanksgiving may be celebrated, but for most Americans this holiday remains a celebration of family and food.
And most families practice their own special traditions. In a Reader’s Digest article, “34 Most Meaningful Thanksgiving Holiday Traditions,” Charlotte Hilton Anderson shares some holiday activities sent to her by her readers. Some play games on this day, one family camps out in the living room after the big meal and falls asleep watching television, and another features a “dinosaur hunt” for the young ones, hiding turkey bones around the house and having the kids track them down.
In my household, no Thanksgiving meal would be complete without the “green salad,” more formally called “Pacific Lime Mold” or “Lime Cottage Salad.” This tart yet sweet concoction livens up the flavor of turkey and dressing, and adds color to the table. Sparkling cider is another staple for this feast.
We also gather before the meal, hold hands, say grace, and then go around the circle with each person sharing something they are grateful for. Some of the little ones are too shy to speak, but every year their older brothers and sisters shed light on their lives and personalities by giving thanks in this way, allowing me to get to know them better.
Sometimes the trials of this long and sometimes dark year we have endured—COVID-19 with its attendant masks, social distancing, and closures, the riots and fires in many of our major cities, a bitter election that has only deepened the already ugly divide among the American people—make gratitude seem in as short supply as some commodities in our grocery stores during the worst of the pandemic. These days, being grateful often requires a summoning of the will, if we even remember to appreciate the good people and things in our lives.
Moreover, Thanksgiving Day gratitude usually involves expressing our appreciation to some form of a higher power, even for nonbelievers. We can offer a “thank you” to a person, but the atheist who spuriously says “I’m grateful for my children” or “I’m grateful for America” is inexact in his language. Exactly who or what does he intend as the recipient of that gratitude?
But to whatever god we may pray, or whatever our circumstances, we can find in the practice of gratitude not only a remembrance of the blessings in our lives but also a source of consolation, hope, and strength. Whether for large gifts like the birth of a child or a successfully treated cancer, or the small everyday pleasures of a cup of coffee and a biscotti, expressing our appreciation, even just to ourselves, frequently lifts our spirits and keeps us moving forward.
To have set an entire day aside just to express this thanks makes Thanksgiving one of the best of holidays.
To Heal the Wounds of the Nation
Perhaps, as in that dark time of the Civil War, Lincoln’s hopes for that first official Thanksgiving should be our hope as well for a country that is almost as terribly and bitterly divided as America was then.
Thanksgiving will occur this year at a time when Democrats and Republicans are at one another’s throats, and when both parties show acrimony toward their own members—the radical left versus liberals in the Democrat party, the Trumpists versus the Never-Trumpers in the Republican. If he becomes president, Joe Biden has vowed to bring Americans together again. Given his angry rhetoric, the ongoing investigation into his corruption vis-à-vis his son Hunter, the radicals like Kamala Harris who surround him, and the anger of tens of millions of Americans who believe he stole this election, the odds of Joe Biden unifying the American people are slim.
No—if we are to coexist as a people, we mustn’t depend on politicians to reunite us. Instead, individuals must bridge that chasm: America’s sons and daughters who can think with their hearts, who can reach out to friends and family members who hold opposing viewpoints, and who are grateful to be citizens of the United States.
Let’s Make This Thanksgiving Special
On this feast day, let’s take a few moments to appreciate the blessings bestowed on us. We flip a switch, and a room lights up. We turn on a tap, and hot water cascades from the spigot. We pull a small device from our pocket and check out the latest news, laugh at a joke Aunt Rosemary sent us, and send a message via social media to our cousin in France. We drive to Grandma’s house for our meal in 30 minutes, a journey that would have taken half a day or more just a century earlier.
In addition, we still possess the rights and liberties that are as natural to most Americans as breathing. Some of those liberties are under attack, but when in our history was this not the case? Like our ancestors, we must defend and fight for those rights; otherwise they will vanish. But on Thanksgiving, we can pause to appreciate and treasure them.
Finally, we can use Thanksgiving Day as a teaching moment for our children. Near the end of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project,” a rebuttal of the radical revisionist history of our past published by The New York Times, professor and author Peter W. Wood writes: “A citizen should grow up knowing we are a free people under the rule of law. A citizen should know that it is not some happy accident but the result of an immense effort over many generations. It was the work of courageous men and women who pursued principle even when the situation seemed hopeless.”
Let’s bear those thoughts in mind in the next few weeks and hope we possess the same valor and virtues of our predecessors.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.