Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Seat at the Table of the Nation

Steven Cromack

Thanksgiving approaches. In schools across the country, students are learning about the Pilgrims with their black buckle hats, the Indians with their feathers, and a feast in which both groups came together in peace and harmony. At this first thanksgiving, both groups celebrated the bountiful blessings of company and friendship, while the Pilgrims gave thanks to their gracious God. Students learn of the first thanksgiving proclamation made by President Washington, and that, since then, Thanksgiving has become part of our national tradition.

The reality is that the Thanksgiving holiday, as we know it today, comes from Sara Josepha Hale, a nineteenth-century journalist, who petitioned President Lincoln for a national day of thanks, and singlehandedly linked giving thanks with eating turkey and pies.

Although many attribute the first thanksgiving to the Pilgrims, that celebration was nothing more than a harvest festival. In his book, We Gather Together: The Story of Thanksgiving, anthropologist Ralph Linton outlined the harvest festivals celebrated in the Old World. In the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, English, and Slavic traditions, there appears an annual harvest festival of feasting and giving thanks. In the same way, the Pilgrims, who carried with them their Old World traditions, were naturally going to have harvest festivals and give thanks for their blessings.

In 1895, Reverend William DeLoss Love wrote a comprehensive history of the New England harvest festivals. He noted that the 1621 event, “was not a thanksgiving at all, judged by their Puritan customs, which they kept in 1621; but as we look back upon it after nearly three centuries, it seems so wonderfully like the day we love that we claim it as the progenitor of our harvest feasts” (69). Reverend Love, instead, would have more realistically been familiar with the events of a few decades earlier and one prominent journalist.

Nineteenth-century journalist Sara Josepha Hale invented the thanksgiving that exists today. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady's Book, the nation’s premiere magazine for nineteenth-century women. In it, she published numerous editorials urging the nation to set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanks. In the September 1860 edition of Godey, Hale wrote, “THANKSGIVING—the new National Holiday.—We must advert once more to this grand object of nationalizing Thanksgiving Day, by adopting, as a permanent rule, the last Thursday in November in all the States.” In addition to this one, she had published similar petitions in Godey’s since 1855. One reader wrote Hale in November of 1859, “DEAR MADAM: Your admirable suggestions in relation to the simultaneous observance of Thanksgiving Day over the whole Union have, before this, made a deep, and, let us trust, an abiding impression in the most influential and desirable quarters.” Hale also published a cookbook titled Mrs. Hale’s New Cook Book, with recipes for turkey and sweet potatoes. In an effort to make permanent her desire for a national holiday, she wrote over forty years worth of letters to governors and presidents.

Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln recognized the political advantage to having a national day of thanks. In 1863, he declared, “I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” For Lincoln, appealing to the nation and God to give thanks was an attempt to start a healing process for a nation still embroiled in a bloody Civil War. In 1864, Lincoln made a similar proclamation. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hale wrote President Johnson and made the same request. As a result, every president following Lincoln, because of Hale’s letter writing, made thanksgiving proclamations in November. Thanksgiving, therefore, became a yearly tradition with Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation. Congress finally made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1941.

It is because of Sara Josepha Hale, not the Pilgrims, that we eat turkey on the last Thursday of November. Thanksgiving only became a yearly tradition in the mid nineteenth-century. Her four-decade campaign changed the nation, and yet, not one American history textbook even mentions her enormous contribution to our tradition. Hale used Thanksgiving to bring the nation together. She wrote in 1857, “Last year, nearly all States and Territories united on that day. This year, we trust, there will be no blank in this number, nor a seat left vacant at the Table of the Nation.”

Further Reading:

Excerpts of Hale’s editorials, as well as letters written to her by readers, are online:

William DeLoss Love, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. New York:
Houghton-Mifflin, 1895.

1 comment:

Jeremy Bangs said...

An excellent history of the development of Thanksgiving as now celebrated in America is James Baker's Thanksgiving, The Biography of an American Holiday (University Press of New England, 2009).

An anachronism in William DeLoss Love's analysis is that he judges that the 1621 event of the Pilgrims could not have been a Thanksgiving because it did not correspond with Puritan Thanksgivings in New England that developed years later.

Jeremy Bangs