How Thanksgiving Became a Holiday

By Addison Dunn

Twenty-twenty has taught us several lessons. Whether it tested our mental capacity, our wants, our needs… it certainly has made us appreciate the important things in life. Going forward, I am sure we will take fewer things for granted. Here is one more reason to be thankful–actually one more person–Sarah Josepha Hale.

Sarah Hale was an American writer, activist, and an influential editor. Although you may not be familiar with her name, you will certainly recognize the tune which she authored, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Beyond her poetry, Sarah campaigned for the creation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday; convincing President Abraham Lincoln after writing letters for 17 years to the four preceding presidents. A favorite holiday among many, known for bringing families together, spreading thanks and gratitude, and rejoicing in delicious food.

She was born Sarah Josepha Buell in Newport, New Hampshire to Captain Gordon Buell, a Revolutionary War veteran, and Martha Whittlesay Buell. Her parents believed in equal education for both genders and was home-schooled by her mother and elder brother Horatio, both of whom attended Dartmouth College. Sarah became well-educated in the classics and through their teaching, she was given the equivalent of a college education.

Later, Sarah used her literary skill to become a schoolteacher. In 1811, Sarah met a lawyer named David Hale who took a fancy to this sophisticated lady. The couple married at her father’s pub, The Rising Sun, in 1813. Five children soon followed: David, Horatio, Frances, Sarah, and William. David suddenly died in 1822 and Sarah was left caring for five children. As an act of dedication and mourning, she wore black for the rest of her life. She then turned to writing to support her five children. In 1827, she published Northwood: Life North and South, one of the first novels to be published by an American woman. Shortly after, a clergyman, John L. Blake, invited her to edit Ladies’ Magazine, which he founded. In 1837, it was purchased by Louis Godey, and became Godey’s Lady’s Book. Pursuing this opportunity, Sarah moved to Philadelphia and continued to edit the magazine for forty years, until 1877.

Sarah was highly patriotic. She had read about the 1621 feast of the Pilgrims and became captivated with the idea of turning it into a national holiday. She used her leverage as editor to get her message out and persuade the masses. She published recipes for turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie in Godey’s Lady’s Book and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. She began a lobbying campaign to persuade the President to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, using her magazine to build public support by writing an editorial every year starting in 1846. She also sent letters to all governors in the United States and territories. In 1863, President Lincoln was the one that made Thanksgiving an official holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the annual Thanksgiving holiday to the third Thursday of November. However, there was so much opposition to the move that two years later he changed it back to the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanks to her accomplishments, Sarah could be considered one of the first of the great “lady editors.” She used color illustrations of the latest fashions and original contributions by nearly all the famous American authors of the day. She helped raise the circulation of Godey’s Lady’s Book to over 150,000! Through her column, “Editor’s Table,” Sarah articulated personal philosophy, social concerns, and literary criticism. Her editorial policy was to provide quality material to benefit and educate female readers, and as a result, make them better wives and mothers. Sarah also supported women doctors, property rights for married women, and in her later life, working women. The promotion of women authors was her constant literary goal. She spent her life writing many instructional works and editing the writings of others, producing nearly fifty volumes by her death.

In 1851, she founded the Ladies’ Medical Missionary Society of Philadelphia. The organization fought for a woman’s right to go to a foreign land as a medical missionary without the accompaniment of a man. In 1833, she was elected president of the Seaman’s Aid Society, which trained women in trades and set up nursery schools for their children. She was an important advocate for many public campaigns. On top of getting Thanksgiving declared a national holiday, some of her accomplishments include raising funds for the Bunker Hill Monument and making Mount Vernon a national shrine. She supported and encouraged the work of several generations of women authors. Today, she is considered one of the most prominent American woman engaged in literary enterprise in the mid-nineteenth century. Sarah passed away in 1879 at the ripe age of 91, leaving a legacy in her wake.

On the fourth Thursday of this month, as you gather with your loved ones and share one of the best meals of the year, say an extra thank you for Sarah Josepha Hale. If it were not for her enthusiasm to include Thanksgiving as a national holiday, we might have lost one of our most beloved traditions. From all of us at Kernersville Magazine, we wish you a Thanksgiving full of laughter, joy, and gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *