Kids draw bright crayoned versions pictures of the “first” Thanksgiving, although chances are they don’t depict the original celebrants eating venison and eel, or engaging in shooting demonstrations. It’s certainly not an event the Wampanoag would have recognized. The Thanksgiving holidays we celebrate today center around family and togetherness. That’s due to one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale (who incidentally was the author of the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” later put to music).
Before Hale’s campaign to create a national holiday, Thanksgiving was held at different times in different jurisdictions on any date between October and January. Or not at all. And in the South the holiday was largely unknown.
But Hale was editor of the most widely circulated magazine of the time, Godey’s Lady’s Book. This publication, largely aimed at women, published influential poetry, art, and fiction, and under Hale, advocated for women’s educational attainment. Beginning in 1846, Hale used this platform to push for a national day of gratitude. She hoped such a holiday would help to unify the North and South, even prevent a Civil War. Violating the magazine’s policy against politics, she wrote editorials year after year asking the nation’s leaders to declare the last Thursday in November a national holiday–Thanksgiving Day.
In an editorial published November 1857 she wrote:
Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the “feast of fat things” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.
She also steered public sentiment by promoting Thanksgiving recipes (including roast turkey and pumpkin pie), poems, stories, and drawings of families gathered at the Thanksgiving table. She wrote hundreds of letters to governors, presidents, and secretaries of state as part of her campaign.
Seventeen years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated as a national holiday. This day, which many of this country’s original inhabitants consider a national day of mourning, is also a day established to promote peace and goodwill. Never underestimate the power of an idea, pushed by a pen and persuasive pumpkin pie recipes.