America’s Thanksgiving Day holiday is credited to the Pilgrims. The truth is, we have a national celebration thanks to Sarah Hale and her 38-year letter writing campaign.
Hale wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, and she started a campaign in 1825 to bring it to pass. In Hale’s day — two hundred years after the pilgrim’s arrival — Thanksgiving had been mostly forgotten.
Sarah Josepha Hale grew up in New Hampshire, listening to her father’s Revolutionary War stories, according to Laurie Halse Anderson in her book “Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving.” Her father’s stories made a deep impression on her.
Lucky for Hale, both her parents supported education for women. When her husband died, Hale began writing as a way to support her young family. Her work caught the attention of Rev. John Blake, who asked Hale to move to Boston and become editor of “Ladies Magazine.” When in 1837 Louis Antoine Godey bought “Ladies Magazine” and merged it with “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” he brought Hale on as editor, a position she held for 40 years.
Hale’s advocacies included education, especially higher education and employment for women. A woman’s, “first right is to education in its widest sense, to such education as will give her the full development of all her personal, mental and moral qualities,” Hale wrote in the book “Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.”
Hale used her editorial position to garner support for her advocacies, including a Thanksgiving Day. Individual states began to declare their own Thanksgiving holidays. But Hale remembered her father’s stories, and she had a bigger goal. She wanted the entire country to celebrate Thanksgiving together, on the same day. She wrote to the President of the United States. But Zachary Taylor said, “No.”
So Hale continued her articles and letter writing campaigns.
Then she wrote to the next president, Millard Fillmore. He also said, “No.”
Hale took her Thanksgiving Day campaign state-by-state, until a new president came to office. She wrote to President Franklin Pierce. She received another no.
Then it was President James Buchanan. No.
By now America was at war, North against South. Some states that had instituted a day of Thanksgiving were no longer holding the celebration. Hale had been working on this project for more than 35 years. It looked more hopeless than ever.
“[Hale] picked up her mighty pen and wrote another letter; this time to President Abraham Lincoln. America needed Thanksgiving, now more than ever. A holiday wouldn’t stop the war, but it could help bring the country together.”
Abraham Lincoln agreed. In 1863, he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. And it has been ever since.
The national Thanksgiving Day we celebrate today is based on the Harvest Feast celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, with modern touches added through the years. For example, football was first played on Thanksgiving Day in the 1870’s, and the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in 1924.
We’d have none of this but for the perseverance of a woman who did not even have the right to vote. Thank you, Sarah Hale.
Editor’s Note: The information in this story is from the picture book “Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and from personal research conducted at the Bunker Hill Museum in Boston, which features an exhibit about Sarah Hale.