The Mother of Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale, engraving from Library of Congress

Mary had a turkey browned
From three hours in the oven
Her guests were drooling all the while
For gravy and the stuffin’

Hale’s famous poem, variation by kajmeister

Perhaps Americans would still have invented Thanksgiving without Sarah Josepha Hale. After all, proclamations of Thanksgiving had been declared by the Continental Congresses by Samuel Adams and John Hanson and the like:

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged and so on and so forth etcetera etcetera etcetera…

November 1782, text for the Thanksgiving or National Prayer Day observation (Wikipedia)

That seems a rather dry plateful of harvest to start with, taking some 250 words until it even gets to the Thanksgiving part of the equation. Why, there’s hardly any gravy at all, although there does seem to be quite a bit of lard in it, so maybe the pies were flaky.

Perhaps there would have been a harvest festival in the fourth week of November without Mrs. Hale. There was a dinner with pilgrims and with food supplied by the Wampanoag, although it didn’t involve turkey or stuffing, and it might not have been so friendly as the children’s stories maintain. Yet harvest feasts–giving thanks for the bounty of the earth–is a tradition that goes back through much of human history. Surely, those happened without Sarah Hale.

And maybe, Mary went to school with her little lamb without Ms. Hale, and Bunker Hill Monument might have been funded and Vassar founded and abolitionists would have done their work. And yet, maybe not. Because Sarah Josepha Hale was a very busy woman.

A National and Fixed Union Festival

Hale thought the idea of an annual Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated on the same day across the states, was a critical one. She had been writing presidents for fifteen years, advocating for a formally recognized “federal holiday” to join the two that existed at the time, Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. She wrote presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan before her letter to Abraham Lincoln found a home for persuasion. There might have been editorials in various newspapers; Hale wrote a lot.

Letter from Sarah Hale to President Lincoln
Sarah Hale’s letter to President Lincoln, photo from wikipedia

The harvest meal, the commemoration of a Thanksgiving, was taking place in many states, particularly in New England and the north. Other states claimed their own ownership and history of settlers and thankful meals, so there’d been disagreement on the day and the food. Sometimes the day had happened in November; sometimes late in the month. But in 1863 many states were doing their own thing and shooting at each other for the right to preserve doing their own thing. Although by November–after Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga–by November 1863, the tide of the war was turning for the Union.

Lincoln was trying to bring people together after hardship and thought a national holiday, celebrated by everyone on a fixed day, might be a way to do it. Hale’s idea, probably not hers alone but hers as advocated and described, did take root.

Eventually, President Grant signed the national Holidays Act, which included New Years, Christmas, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. Over time, the final Thursday in November was settled on for Thanksgiving, as a way of recognizing formally in the United States, the freedom and bounty that people had after the stress of a turbulent and trying year.

An Original American Influencer, 1822- 1879

Hale, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a schoolteacher who married a lawyer at the age of 25. She bore him five children, though he died by the time she was 34. She wore black in mourning for the remainder of her life, dying at aged 90. Maybe that’s where Queen Victoria got the idea from. Hale had a lot of ideas that caught on.

Sarah was raised by parents who educated both their children, although her brother went to Dartmouth and she was home-schooled. She was eventually the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book , for forty years overseeing an influential magazine of essays, poems, stories, and ideas. In its time, Godey’s was the largest publication of its type, with 15,000 readers. Godey’s also published fashion and home plans which were copied.

log cabin pictured with quote
Hale wrote many quotables in Godey’s, example and picture from

Hale was also an abolitionist, advocating for an end to slavery. She was one of the first women novelists and the first to write a novel about slavery, Northwood: Life North and South. She also believed strongly in both employment and education for women, and used her magazine to pen essays on the topic. Over time, the idea of colleges for women became slightly more acceptable, and she was able to help fund Vassar College.

Sarah Also Wrote a Poem, Whose Fleece Was White As Snow

Hale, in one of her 50+ books of essays, stories, and poetry, wrote the original poem, “Mary had a little lamb.” As a schoolteacher, Hale claimed that the incident with a young student and pet barnyard animal took place. She wanted to teach a moral:

And you each gentle animal,
In confidence may bind,
And make them answer to your call,
If you are always kind.”[2]

Rarely-read stanza of the famous poem, cited in Wikipedia.

Of course, royalties and credit claiming being how it is in our wild and free country, another Mary showed up a few decades later to claim ownership of the incident and the poem. Mary Tyler of Sudbury, Massachussetts said in 1876 that she was the originator of the little story because she had, in fact, brought a lamb to school. Supposedly a young man named John Roulstone wrote the poem down after observing the commotion and handed it on a slip of paper to Ms. Tyler. Naturally, she didn’t still have the slip of paper but recalled this all by memory.

This all becomes too American. The town of Redstone recognized Tyler’s claim, despite there being no evidence to support it and Sarah Hale’s poem in a book published many years earlier. So there was naturally a schoolhouse/monument/tourist site, purchased by Henry Ford who did such things to bring in tourists and their dollars and to be patriotic. (For example, Ford did purchase Rosa Parks’ bus, and it does sit in his Greenfield Village patriotic tourist attraction.) Meanwhile, Mary Sawyer, the claimant with no evidence, lived in a house which was added to the National Register in 2000. The house was–somehow fittingly–destroyed by arson in 2007.

Sarah wrote the poem. Sarah also helped fund Vassar, raised funds to support Mount Vernon and the Bunker Hill Monument, edited one of the most influential magazines in America, advocated for the end to slavery and the beginning to women’s colleges, and helped create the holiday that we celebrate today.

FDR fixed the national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November, rather than the last holiday in November, hoping that there would be more time for Christmas shopping. In the hard times of the 1930s, merchants needed all the help they could get, as they do now. Black Friday and Cyber Monday apparently also have deep American roots.

Turkey wasn’t at the original meal, and possible not stuffing or cranberries, nor was Thanksgiving originally on the final Thursday. Yet the main point of Thanksgiving, to look back over the trials and tribulations of a stressful year, whether 1623 or 1863 or 2020, and to remain grateful that we who are celebrating are still here and can hope for a better tomorrow–all of that is part of tradition. We are in the middle of pandemic surge, but we have at least put some of the worst of the political tribulations behind us, so we are better positioned to conquer our current challenge together.

Lincoln’s Proclamation, as written in part by William Seward, puts it well:

The 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 consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom. … these great things…. should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.

Lincoln proclaiming Thanksgiving

Eat what you want. Celebrate however you can. I am certainly grateful for you, gentle reader.

Mary had a Little Blog
She Wrote with All Her Heart
May this Year End Well for You and Yours
And the Next Be a Brand New Start

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