Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

3.1 At the head of the table: Sarah Josepha Hale

A typical Thanksgiving in my family:  my mom slaves over the dinner.  Sometimes Dad will suggest a prayer or words of thanks as we gather around the table, and we all giggle a bit—my siblings and I are not the serious types who meditate on such things (because hey, the food might get cold, or someone else might get the drumstick.)  So we eat, and eat, and eat.  Then some of the family retires to the living room to watch football while the rest of us clear the table and get dessert ready.  Then we eat again.  Then it’s over. 

Ah, holidays. 

Sarah Josepha Hale, "mother" of Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale, "inventor" of Thanksgiving

In all these years of Thanksgivings I’ve celebrated (and I’m talking decades’ worth), my family and I have never discussed where the celebration came from, or what it has meant to us. Of course, I was raised with the stories about the “First Thanksgiving” I’d heard in school about the Pilgrims coming to Plymouth, surviving a winter, and then celebrating the bountiful harvest by inviting the Native Americans to sit down with them for a big turkey dinner.  (And the Pilgrims wore their hats and funny black and white outfits, and the Native Americans had their feathers and whatnot.) But the important thing about the story was that, for a moment, the world stopped and all were united in a single emotion: gratefulness. 

Of course, you know, that really never happened. 

Only a version of it did, with much more complicated purposes, settings and feelings involved than we’ve typically been taught.  And it wasn’t even the first meal of thanksgiving that was celebrated in the New World by Europeans fixed upon conquering territory and making their fortune here.  In fact, there were multiple versions of colonial thanksgivings to choose from:  there was the celebration of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his 1500 men in the Palo Duro Canyon (now Texas) back in 1541 when they were looking for gold; French Huguenot colonists ate a meal of praise in 1564, outside of what is now Jacksonville; English settlers held a harvest feast with the Abnaki Indians in Maine near the Kennebec River in 1607; and, of course, the English colonists at Jamestown held their meal of thanksgiving after a year of terrible famine in 1610, when supplies arrived from England by sea.

So Thanksgiving as we know it today was less tradition than it was invention—the invention of a plucky, industrious and patriotic 19th Century writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale was, herself, a rather remarkable person.  At age 34, she was left widowed and penniless to raise five children by her own means.  So she took up her pen, and wrote a novel, Northwood, with strong abolitionist messages, as well as verses of poetry for children (the most famous of which we know as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)  The success of this writing led to an offer from a British publisher to serve as editor of The Ladies Magazine, and then ultimately to the editorship of  Godey’s Lady’s Book, the biggest publication of its kind, which by 1850 under her leadership had a massive distribution of 150,000 throughout the United States.  Hale used her power to promote up-and-coming American women writers, and her editorship as a literary pulpit to promote causes in which she believed.

And one of these causes, of course, was Thanksgiving.  Hale had seen various permutations of the holiday recognized in several Northern states through the years—but all with different dates (anywhere from October to January) and different themes.  What Hale envisioned was in the power of a single, symbolic holiday—a truly national Thanksgiving—to bring disparate elements of the country together as it was facing unrest (and ultimately, Civil War.)  To her, the holiday would triumph the values of hearth and home, and bring the celebration soundly into the sphere of women.  As she wrote in 1857: “”Our busy, wealth seeking people require to have days of national festivity, when the fashion and the custom will call them to the feast of love and thanksgiving.”

Without Sarah Hale, Sarah Palin wouldn't have to pardon turkeys.  And that just wouldn't be as much fun.

Without Sarah Hale, Sarah Palin wouldn't have to pardon turkeys. And that just wouldn't be as much fun.

Hale tirelessly petitioned various state and national representatives for decades to achieve her dream. And she filled the pages of her magazine with ideas for this potential holiday, listing recipes for turkey preparation (yes, she’s the one we have to thank for it) as well as pumpkin pie and the like.  And while she took a certain amount of inspiration from colonist Edward Winslow’s brief description of that first celebration in Plymouth, she expanded liberally from her own imagination when constructing the menu.  (Pies, for instance, would have been impossible in colonial Massachusetts due to the lack of staples such as flour and sugar.)  In that sense, the holiday is hers as much as it is anyone’s.

The irony is, of course, that while Hale longed for a day that would unite Americans in a spirit of thanks and plenty—to take Americans from disparate countries, backgrounds, and philosophies and give them a common celebration—she ignored the fact that Thanksgiving was based on the suffering of another people.  For the pilgrims and colonists that came to the New World at Plymouth survived largely due to the sacrifice of the Native Americans whose land they occupied.  (We’ll explore that in another post.)

Ultimately, Hale lived to see her dream realized in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared that the 4th Thursday of November would be held as a national day of thanks.  And it has been a tradition since then.

So it seems appropriate that we seat Sarah Josepha Hale at the head of our symbolic table this week, as honorary hostess of this little exploration of the First Thanksgiving.  Because without her we wouldn’t necessarily have Thanksgiving–at least as we know it today.  Or the hallowed holiday turkey.  Or cranberry sauce.  Or pumpkin pie.  Or even the quiet, “Norman Rockwell” picture of the celebration that we cherish in our minds (how conveniently we forget all the indigestion, arguments and anxiety we have from year to year.)   

It’s entirely possible that if the Texans had started this whole thing (like the Texas Society Daughters of the American Colonists did in 1959), we’d be prospecting for gold in our backyards, drinking tequila, shooting off guns to mark the holiday, and eating rice and beans.  

Hmm.  Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound so bad.  (Note to self for shopping list:  Cuervo.  Salt.  Limes.)


1 Comment so far
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Great story. Great irony in the fact that a strong, independent woman was responsible for this most chauvinistic of holidays. I’m sure your family’s Thanksgiving experience is very much the norm; women slave over hot stove, everyone pigs out, men retire to the TV room to watch football and pass out while the women clean up. What a country!

Comment by Paul B

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