When we sit down to tables full of food for the Thanksgiving holiday, most Americans think of the first feast shared by pilgrims and indians.  But there's another story about the history of the holiday, and it largely centers on the tireless efforts of one woman to put Thanksgiving on the national calendar.

In early America, several states (especially in New England) celebrated days of thanks-giving to God during the fall or winter months.  But it was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be the official national holiday.*

Lincoln was thankful – thankful that the Union had held together after the Civil War.  During his time in office, he had received many letters from the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, encouraging him to adopt a national holiday to thank God.  

But Lincoln was not the first president to receive such letters from Hale.  She'd written to four other presidents before him: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

According to Davidson historian Anne Blue Wills, Sarah Hale's vision for the national holiday included more than a remembrance of American roots:

  • Americans would travel to their homeland, to be with their families.  Hale lived in a time when Americans were increasingly living in places not their birthplace.  She wanted Americans to experience the rural countryside and to see God's bountiful blessings as well as taste them.
  • Americans would feast – and not just a little.  The near gluttony of today's holiday was a part of Hale's vision.  The first dinners shared by the pilgrims were not likely to be very bountiful.  The pilgrims actually had a rough time getting enough food!  But Hale wanted Americans to feast on big birds – turkeys or chickens.
  • Americans would experience the joys of being at home.  As editor of a ladies' magazine, Hale put great emphasis on the decorating and homemaking that were necessary to make Thanksgiving a cozy holiday.  She believed in the home as the woman's sphere, where women could display their excellent cooking and decorating skills.  

I think if Hale were alive today, she'd be pleased with the Thanksgiving holiday.  In her honor, enjoy the outdoors, some turkey, and a nice nap.  And don't forget to thank the cook!

The creation of this national holiday was one of Hale's greatest achievements.  But Hale's influence went far beyond Thanksgiving.  

Hale was an educated woman living in the 1800's – a rarity.  She was a strong believer in women's education and property rights and helped to found Vassar College for women.  She also believed in playtime and physical education for children.

Hale was a patriot.  She had great American pride and tried to maximize the number of articles in her publications that were authored by Americans (and minimize those written by Brits).  She also showed great respect for intellectual property by only publishing original contributions and copyrighting her magazine.  She wanted to instill American pride in others in the new country, and fought to preserve Mount Vernon and construct the Bunker Hill monument.

Hale was a Christian woman and a devoted wife and mother.  Although her husband died only nine years after they married, the two managed to have five children together, and Hale dressed in black for the rest of her life in mourning.  Hale opposed slavery, desired national unity, and believed that in her politically polarized time it was the duty and honor of the women of our nation to be conservers of morality, peace, and good-will to others.

Oh, and she wrote tons of poetry.  Mary Had a Little Lamb… ever heard of it? 

Happy Thanksgiving from IWF!


*Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, to allow for more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.