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Sarah Josepha Hale: The Mother of Thanksgiving
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Thursday, November 26, 2015
J.L. Robb

I have been blessed in my life in so many ways, and it is not because I deserve it. One such blessing is that my weekly Omega Letter article comes out on Thursday. That means once a year I get to write about Thanksgiving, one of my most favorite of holidays.

It’s the time of year that I get reminded that Thanksgiving is a “pagan” holiday, but what holiday isn’t. They seem to all have a touch of paganism, such is life.

I do not know any pagans, at least that I know of; because I don’t know anyone who worships numerous gods or goddesses. I do however know many wonderful and good people who celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has an interesting history; but were it not for Sarah Josepha Hale, it may not have ever been a national holiday. On September 28, 1863, she wrote the following letter to President Abraham Lincoln:

Philadelphia, Sept. 28th 1863.

Sir.--

Permit me, as Editress of the "Lady's Book", to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and -- as I trust -- even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the "Lady's Book", and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories -- also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen -- and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid -- that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; -- or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has occurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag -- could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.

Excuse the liberty I have taken,

With profound respect

Yrs truly

Sarah Josepha Hale,

Editress of the "Ladys Book"

Sarah Josepha Hale was no slouch and was an early advocate of women’s rights. She lived from October 24, 1788 until April 30, 1879 and was editor of the most successful women’s magazine of the 19th century, Godey’s Lady’s Book. And she had a huge interest in Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving was in 1621. The pilgrims left England in September, 1620 seeking religious freedom among other things and hoped to make it to Virginia Colony, which they did not. After the 66 day journey and a series of storms, the pilgrims ended up in Provincetown Harbor instead.  

The first winter was tough, and many pilgrims died from freezing or starvation. They made friends with the local Indian tribe, the Wampanoags; and in the spring, the Wampanoags showed them how to plant corn, barley and peas. The following fall, after the corn harvest, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags ate together and gave thanks for the abundance of food they managed to store for the coming winter.

Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated haphazardly, the day of celebration chosen by the individual states. Sarah Josepha Hale wanted the day of Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday of November for all states. She had petitioned other Presidents but had been ignored. Abraham Lincoln acted immediately.

October 3, 1863, President Lincoln signed the proclamation proclaiming the last Thursday of November as a day of “Thanksgiving and praise.”

This Thanksgiving I give thanks for Sarah Josepha Hale. Pass the turkey!

About J.L. Robb

Last week: Veterans's Day



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