“Our National Thanksgiving”

By Rakashi Chand, Reading Room Supervisor

Sarah Josepha Hale has more to do with our everyday lives than we realize. The author of ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’, Hale influenced American culture as Editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book encouraging the education of women and the abolition of slavery, but also convincing America to wear white wedding dresses and put Christmas trees in their living rooms. She used her power of persuasion to raise money to maintain historic sites including Mount Vernon and the Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts. But her personal mission was to unify the nation with the creation of an annual National Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, Massachusetts Historical Society

Hale described the ideal Thanksgiving in her 1827 novel, Northwood :

The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting…

bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter.

…. There was a huge plumb pudding, custards, and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits. On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant Wine and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer…”

Northwood by Sarah Josepha Hale 1827.

The description may seem iconic now, but this was a new idea for the generation she was trying to convince. In New England, ‘Thanksgivings’ were often held to mark an occasion, a practice unknown in other parts of the country, but one Hale grew up with in New Hampshire.

Due to increasing polarization across the country, Hale felt a ‘National Thanksgiving’ could bring people together. With the onset of the Civil War Hale determined that a day of Thanksgiving was needed more than ever. Those who she could not influence through her published works or magazine she sought to convince with personal letters. Hale wrote letter after letter determined to have the whole country celebrate together.

On 28 September 1863, Hale wrote a letter to Pres. Abraham Lincoln, urging him that our divided nation needed a day of unity and peace.


Philadelphia, September 28, 1863


             Permit me as Editor 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 authoritative fixation only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution…

Lincoln proclaimed 26 November 1863 to be a National Day of Thanksgiving, but Hale wanted this to be an annual tradition, not a single incident. For that reason she continued her letter-writing campaign.

Hale wrote to George Washington Warren on 3 May 1877, asking him to write a resolution for a National Annual Thanksgiving.

Sarah J. Hale to George Washington Warren, May 3, 1877. George Washington Warren Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

(Rough transcription)

1413 Locust St.

                                                                                Philadelphia May 3 77-

G. Washington Warren,

                                Dear Sir,

I regret that your welcome letter has been so long unanswered- I have not been able to write, on account of the weakness of my eyes and I am still obliged to employ an amanuensis.

                                I am deeply indebted to you for your efforts to help me in our National Thanksgiving – will not this extra session of Congress furnish a good opportunity to present the subject? Nothing is needed but a Resolution of Congress making the last Thursday in November a legal holiday, for a National Thanksgiving, and making it [incumbent] on the President of the United States to issue a proclamation to that effect.

                                You would greatly oblige me if you would draw up this resolution, put it in the hands of your friends in the Massachusetts delegation and urge them to bring it forward at this extra Session if possible. Massachusetts was the first state to appoint a Thanksgiving, and her sons should make it National.

If you should draw up this Resolution, will you favor me with a copy?

I am much pleased with the manner in which you have treated this effort of mine, in your History of the Bunker Hill Monument, and hope much from your sympathy and assistance.

                                I have yet seen your daughter but hope to have the pleasure during her stay in Philadelphia.

                                I enclose an article written for the Ladys Book, for Last November, on the subject of a  ‘National Thanksgiving’ .

                                                                                                Yours Truly-

                                                                                               Sarah J. Hale-

                                                                                                By F. A. [Ghenter]

In the end, the holiday Hale worked tirelessly to create was a day of Peace and Unity. Hale set the table to bring us all together, and for that, we give thanks. And in my opinion, she also gave us the best meal of the year.

For another perspective on Lincoln’s proclamation and the first National Thanksgiving on 26 November 1863, please read this blogpost: Thanksgiving in London | Beehive (masshist.org)

Further reading:

Godey’s Lady’s Book or Godey’s Magazine available the Massachusetts Historical Society

How the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday | HISTORY

Lincoln and Thanksgiving – Lincoln Home National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)

Biography: Sarah Josepha Hale (womenshistory.org)