Time flies, I recently realized my book Thanksgiving: The True Story was published fourteen years ago in 2008! My interest in the topic was first piqued by my graduate students at Queens College, the City University of New York where I had an appointment as a distinguished lecturer. The specific epiphany moment was a class the day before Thanksgiving when the conversation turned to food, and one student said, they had "turkey on the side that no one eats." Turkey-loving me who unfailingly cooks and eats the traditional turkey, stuffing, cranberries, etc. meal, asked in astonishment. "On the side of what!?" Italian food—“antipasti and lasagna," she replied. Other students chimed in with their "turkey on the side" Thanksgiving menus from spanakopita to kimchi! Intrigued, I conducted an extensive survey and discovered a cornucopia of foods tied to cultural identities. Excited by what I was discovering, I set off to learn more about what is my favorite holiday—Thanksgiving.
My research for my book led me to discover 12 competing claims for the “First” Thanksgiving—2 in Texas, 2 in Florida, 1 in Maine, 2 in Virginia, and 5 in Massachusetts, including the event that occurred in 1621 with the English colonists and the Wampanoag that became the iconic story for the origin of Thanksgiving. But as I continued doing more research, I realized that, in fact, none of these claims led directly to the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States.
The true story of our modern Thanksgiving starts with three elements: two ancient traditions—celebrating harvest festivals and proclaiming days of thanksgiving for special events from a military victory to the end of a drought or an epidemic. And the ceaseless forty-year campaign—”THAT THE LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall BE THE DAY OF NATIONAL THANKSGIVING"—by a determined woman: Sarah Josepha Hale.
Born in 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire, Sarah received an education at home from her mother and older brother. She married a lawyer, David Hale, who shared his learning with her. But then, when she was in her mid-30s and pregnant with their fifth child, David died. "I was left poor," she later said. She tried sewing as a way to earn a living. Then she turned to writing. By the time she died at the age of ninety in 1879, she had written many books, including one of the first antislavery books, and the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and had had an
illustrious career as the editor, (or Editress, to use her term) for fifty years of Godey's Lady's Book that she turned into a widely circulated and highly influential magazine, shaping women's fashion, values and behavior for much of the nineteenth century. (Although an advocate for women’s education, Hale did not think women should vote, believing that there were separate spheres for women and men. Thus, she distanced herself from her contemporaries, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)
Year after year, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote editorials advocating for a National Thanksgiving. She pointed out that Americans had only two national holidays to celebrate: George Washington's birthday in February and the Fourth of July. "Are not the sounds of war borne on the breezes of those festivals? . . . . Should not the women of America have one festival in whose rejoicings they can fully participate," she wrote in an editorial. She kept track of where and when Americans celebrated—in states and territories, on board ships, in foreign countries. She lobbied governors, military leaders, clergy, and four U. S. presidents.
Her vision was of all Americans “uniting as one great Family Republic.” She believed that celebrating a national Thanksgiving Day would “awaken in American hearts the love of home and country, of thankfulness to God, and peace between brethren.” In the midst of the devastating Civil War, on September 28, 1963, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, entreating him "to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November . . . .as the National Thanksgiving . . ." A few days later, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln did just that.
Although undoubtedly pleased, Sarah Josepha Hale continued her campaign, knowing that it would take an act of Congress to have a national Thanksgiving become an official holiday, thus “forever secured,” and not dependent on the whim of future presidents. In 1877, the year that she retired at the age of eighty-eight, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote her
last editorial urging Congress to establish the last Thursday in November. a National Day of Thanksgiving “in the name of the American people.”
Sixty-four years later in 1941 Congress finally made Thanksgiving a legal holiday. Since November sometimes has five Thursdays, the last Thursday was changed to the fourth Thursday after years of lobbying by national associations of merchants who wanted for time for Christmas shopping.
In my book, I conclude by wondering about how to connect Thanksgiving to the world
outside my dining room table: "One way is to ask questions. Questions about the food on our table. . . . Questions about thankfulness . . . .Questions about how we spend Thanksgiving . . . .Questions about the wider community . . . .All this is part of the true story of Thanksgiving—the origins, the themes, and the questions. It is a much more complicated story than is typically told. But it is a much richer story, a more nuanced and inclusive story, a fitting story for a country that values diversity and openness, a country where we are free to come together any time we please, including on the fourth Thursday of November—Thanksgiving Day." Happy Thanksgiving!
Images (click to enlarge): top to bottom: Cover of my book, Sarah Josepha Hale (SJH) portrait, 1831, by James Lambdin; SJH "Mother of Thanksgiving" Bobblehead doll; SJH historic marker, Newport, New Hampshire; SJH painted by W.B. Chambers and
engraved for Godey's Lady's Book by W. G. Armstrong.
The final image is of a monument in The Sarah Josepha Hale Memorial Park by the Finnish sculptor Jari Mannisto. Ray Malool, a Newport resident with connections to Finland, was the force behind the monument. "I couldn't get the backing of people to move it forward, so I took the bull by the horns and spearheaded the project." A bronze bust of SJH is atop a tall, black granite pillar that stands on a mill wheel. There is a cornucopia and other elements that represent parts of her life: arms with broken shackles for her antislavery advocacy, an obelisk representing her fundraising efforts for the Bunker Hill Monument, a pile of books, a pen, a lamp with a silhouette of Mary and a lamb. Dedicated on November 23, 2013, long after my research trip to Newport, the monument is on my very long to-visit list. The image is from the sculptor's website.