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Jerry Costello

A Thanksgiving Toast to Sarah Josepha Hale

November 22, 2015

Ever hear of the mother of Thanksgiving? Someone known by that title actually existed, and what’s more—as a noted editor and regular correspondent of U.S. presidents—she was quite well known. In real life, the woman recognized as the mother of Thanksgiving was Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and tireless campaigner for designation of the fourth Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

                In that capacity she wrote to a string of American presidents—Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln—strongly suggesting an official proclamation declaring that holiday as devoted to God. It wasn’t until Lincoln that her patience paid off. In October of 1863, the 16th President urged all Americans to observe the fourth Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

                Rich Lowry tells the story of Sarah Hale in his column in the New York Post. He noted that Thanksgiving had existed in this country long before Lincoln, but the president’s action made it official, and gave it a uniform quality. That latter point proved to be especially important, since many states held their version of the holiday on different days. 

                Lowry says that Hale “wanted to guarantee Thanksgiving’s place in America’s firmament by making it a national day,” and so, more or less, has it been. “Less” because in recent years Thanksgiving has lost most of the religious fervor in which it was first cast. Lincoln’s original proclamation, with its words praising “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” for example, reflected Hale’s own sentiments.

                In fact, she envisioned the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving as the “twin festivals” of the American people—“each connected with their history,” she wrote, “and therefore of great importance in giving power and distinctness to their nationality.” She saw the Fourth as a day to honor patriotism, and Thanksgiving as an acknowledgment of God’s favor.

                “These two festivals,” she argued, “should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life.”

                Hale had a vision, no question about it. She was a formidable woman, author of regular editorials and several novels about American life. She even wrote nursery rhymes (“Mary Had a Little Lamb” was one of them). She campaigned not only for Thanksgiving but for a variety of projects, completion of the Bunker Hill Monument among them. The magazine she edited, Godey’s Lady’s Book, was a leading publication of its day, and her contributors numbered such heavyweights as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Washington Irving.                And with all the forces at her command, she is remembered most of all today as the guiding spirit—the persistent, almost shrill guiding spirit—behind the creation of a national day of Thanksgiving.

                As far back as 1852, she was predicting in one of her editorials: “Wherever an American is found, the last Thursday [of November] 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.”

                Sound familiar? Of course it does. Here’s a toast then, to Sarah Josepha Hale—who started it all.


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