It was 150 years ago that Sarah Josepha Hale gave us Thanksgiving as we know it.
The influential editor was the best friend Thanksgiving ever had. We are accustomed, in a more jaded and secular age, to wars on various holidays; Hale waged a war for Thanksgiving. For years, she evangelized for nationalizing the holiday by designating the last Thursday of November for it to be celebrated annually across the country.
Besides plugging for Thanksgiving in her publication, Godey’s Lady’s Book, she wrote Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan about it before hitting pay dirt with Abraham Lincoln. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln urged his fellow citizens to observe the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Hale had succeeded in her long-sought goal, but kept — as Peggy Baker notes in an essay about her as “the Godmother of Thanksgiving” — writing editorials about Thanksgiving for another dozen years. You might say that she was a bore and nag on the topic, if her cause hadn’t been so splendid and her understanding of Thanksgiving so clear-eyed, clairvoyant even.
Hale saw the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving as the twin festivals of the American people, “each connected with their history, and therefore of great importance in giving power and distinctness to their nationality,” as she put it in an 1852 editorial.
July Fourth celebrated national independence and liberty, while Thanksgiving acknowledged God “as the dispenser of blessings.” She argued that “these two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life.”
Of course, Thanksgiving had existed on these shores long before Hale took it up as a cause. Her description of a New England Thanksgiving feast in her 1827 novel Northwood would have been recognized by Norman Rockwell, and could apply with equal accuracy to the average American home today. She described the table “now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion; and the more the better.”
“The roasted turkey took precedence,” she wrote, “being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting.”
The dessert course is almost as recognizable: “There was a huge plum pudding, custards and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.”
Thanksgiving had always been held in autumn, Hale explains in the book, “the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.” But different states held it on different days, and the holiday tradition was strongest in New England. Hale wanted to guarantee Thanksgiving’s place in America’s firmament by making it a national day.
She quoted the 19th-century British writer Robert Southey in making her case. “Festivals, when duly observed, attach men to the civil and religious institutions of their country,” he wrote. “Who is there who does not recollect their effect upon himself in early life?”
Hale understood the particular pull of Thanksgiving. She wrote in 1837, “It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart — the social and domestic ties.” (Although her faith in family bonds, re-fortified around the Thanksgiving table, might have been a touch naïve: “How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law? And who is a better fellow than our wife’s uncle from St. Louis?”)
In her 1852 editorial, she predicted that “wherever an American is found, the last Thursday would be the Thanksgiving Day. Families may be separated so widely that personal reunion would be impossible; still this festival, like the Fourth of July, will bring every American heart into harmony with his home and his country.” And so it does, still.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2013 by King Features