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Founders of the feast

Sarah Josepha Hale, painted by James Reid Lambdin. Courtesy of Richard’s Free Library, Newport, New Hampshire.

“Give thanks, all ye people, give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluias of freedom with joyful accord:
Let the East and the West, North and South roll along,
Sea, mountain and prairie, one thanksgiving song.”
– from “The President’s Hymn” written by Episcopal clergyman, William Augustus Muhlenburg to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863.

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Many of us may not realize that we have President Lincoln to thank for his part in establishing Thanksgiving as a permanent national holiday.

And even fewer of us would recognize the name of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the determined woman who made it her 40-year mission to establish a national day of American thanksgiving.

Hale not only helped establish the last Thursday of November as a national holiday, but she shaped our image of what the Pilgrams’ first Thanksgiving looked like and what American Thanksgivings should be.

President Lincoln was, by no means, the first to declare a Thanksgiving holiday on America.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Hale, an editor and a prolific novelist and poet, earned her place in American history as our unofficial “Mother of Thanksgiving” by mounting a campaign to promote an official national day of Thanksgiving.

She was born Sarah Josepha Buell in Newport, New Hampshire in 1788. 

She received a remarkably good education for that time and, at 18, opened a private school where she taught until she married a lawyer by the name of David Hale in 1813.

In 1822, her husband died, leaving the young widow with five children to raise.

Hale became a writer, contributing articles and poetry to many popular publications, and she was also the author of the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

In 1827, Hale’s first novel, Northwood, A Tale of New England was published. 

It told a story which included many details about the differences between life in the North and the South.

In it, Hale devoted an entire chapter to a Thanksgiving meal celebrated by a farming family in New Hampshire. 

Here is an excerpt from that chapter, in which the description of the Thanksgiving table could be referring to many of our modern Thanksgiving feasts:

“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 odour of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of baking. At the foot of the board a surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter… Two or three kinds of pies, all excellent, as many of cake, with pickles and preserves, custards and cheese, and cranberry sauce… furnished forth the feast.”

In 1837, Hale became America’s first woman editor when she was appointed to the editorship of the most influential women’s magazine of the day – “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

Hale kept the post for 40 years.

By 1860, under Hale’s leadership, Godey’s circulation increased from 10,000 to 150,000.

The magazine showcased articles, poetry and engravings by influential American writers and challenging content about social reform, women’s education and property rights. 

Hale even went so far as to publish an article about the health risks to women posed by corsets.

In 1846, Hale began a campaign for a national day of thanksgiving.

There was already a serious strain developing between the North and South, and Hale believed that further disagreement could be curbed if all Americans could, of one accord, set aside a day to give thanks for the blessings of our nation. 

Her position as editor of Godey’s allowed Hale to spread the word about a national Thanksgiving holiday, which she suggested should be observed on the last Thursday of November. 

She featured stories of Thanksgiving family gatherings, editorials, and recipes that promoted the New England style of celebrating Thanksgiving. 

She also wrote numerous letters to the president of the United States as well as to state governors. 

Although many states had agreed that they would support a national holiday, it was not adopted before the South seceded from the Union in 1861.

But this only served to inspire Hale to redouble her efforts, in her absolute belief that a national day of Thanksgiving would help heal the divided nation.

Shortly after the Union’s victory in Gettysburg, we assume that Hale finally got the attention of President Lincoln, sending him a letter outlining her proposal for a national day of thanks.

In a letter dated Sept. 28, 1863, she wrote:

“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.” 

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that the last Thursday in November was to be recognized as a “national day of Thanksgiving,” and urged all Americans, Northerners and Southerners alike, to participate.

Every president since Lincoln has followed suit.

But that was not the end of Hale’s influence on Thanksgiving. 

Prior to her great campaign for the holiday, the romanticized story of the first Thanksgiving was unknown. 

In 1865, she wrote an article describing the first Thanksgiving as a celebratory feast between the “pilgrims” and the Native Americans. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Her story was reproduced in numerous other magazines and newspapers and, five years later, the story of the first Thanksgiving was being taught in schools and included in textbooks. 

Though not entirely historically accurate – the first Thanksgiving was more of a political meeting than a happy feast – the story became an integral part of American lore and is with us to this day.

After 40 years as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale published her last column in December 1877.  

The “Mother of Thanksgiving” passed away on April 30, 1879; she was 90 years old.

Not long after taking the position at Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah wrote a cookbook and homemaker’s guide known as The Good Housekeeper. 

Remarkably, the cookbook is still available to purchase – from $3.22 to $39.

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