How do you follow up an achievement like writing "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? If you're the 19th-century novelist Sarah Josepha Hale, you edit a popular women's magazine, and then create the holiday we have come to celebrate as Thanksgiving.
Although the pilgrim story has dominated elementary school lesson plans for generations, the origins of modern-day Thanksgiving came a couple centuries later, during the Civil War. While there was a harvest festival in 1621, it's not clear if the pilgrims invited the Native Americans to join them; the Wampanoags and pilgrims had an alliance, but definitely weren't very friendly. Accounts at the time show pilgrims praying to God to help them defeat "agents of Satan," which is how they referred to the indigenous peoples. The pilgrim leader Myles Standish, whom many second graders have saluted for his role in the early Plymouth Colony government, cut off the head of a Wampanoag chief and "brought it back to Plymouth in triumph [where] it was displayed on the blockhouse together with a flag made of a cloth soaked in the victim's blood."
Originally, a "thanksgiving" was a somber Puritan religious ceremony that took place throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Thanksgivings could be called at any time, to celebrate a military victory or important event. The harvest festival and thanksgiving ceremony eventually combined into an autumnal New England tradition—but it didn't have much to do with the pilgrims. George Washington gave a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, but he never mentioned the early settlers. When Lincoln made Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863, declaring the last Thursday in November a day of thanks, he didn't mention the pilgrims, either.
Read more: The History of Erasing Women's History
According to Penny Coleman's Thanksgiving: The True Story, the reason we look to 1621 is because of an error, or at least an accident. When an edition of Plymouth governor William Bradford's chronicle of the settlement, "Of Plymouth Plantation," was published in the mid-1800s, a clergyman arbitrarily wrote "The First Thanksgiving" as a footnote on a passage that mentioned a harvest festival where the Wampanoag tribe was present. In the 19th century, with immigrants flooding in from Europe, America was scrambling to create a mythical origin story…and pilgrims coming together with the Native Americans seemed like a good one. The "Pilgrim and Indian" story came about in full force in 1900, after settlers had massacred most Native Americans over the course of American history at that point. That myth coincided with the establishment of American school curricula and made its way into textbooks in the 20th century as fact. Parents and teachers use Thanksgiving as a shortcut to explain the origin of America (and honor white, male settlers), but it's not a useful story for explaining why we celebrate the holiday.
After her husband died in 1822, Sarah Josepha Hale was a single mother of five kids and needed to make money. Miraculously, her father had believed in education for women, and her husband had encouraged her writing—pretty much unheard of at the time—so she was able to turn to writing to start supporting her family. In her first 1827 novel, Northwood, she devotes two chapters to Thanksgiving, an annual meal she would share with her New Hampshire family and the national implementation of which she believed would bring together the increasingly antagonistic North and South. Not only is Northwood one of the first depictions of American home life, it also is a very solid account of a Thanksgiving we can actually recognize as the holiday we celebrate today.
We all know Thanksgiving is about the food, and Hale firmly establishes turkey as the centerpiece:
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 odor of its savory stuffing…
And pumpkin pie as the dessert:
The pumpkin pie is an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.
But while Hale brings up pilgrims as the originators of Thanksgiving, hers is not exactly the story we recognize:
Soon after the settlement of Boston, the colony was…nearly without food. The pious leaders of the pilgrims appointed a day of fasting…[but] on the very morning of the fast, a vessel from London arrived laden with provisions, and so the fast was changed into a Thanksgiving."
So, at this point, Thanksgiving apparently came out of Boston, and the pilgrims survived because of…the British?
What's more interesting, though, is that Hale makes sure to say that the holiday her characters are celebrating in Northwood is not about the pilgrims, but about the goodness of humanity:
[Today's Thanksgiving] is not with any purpose of celebrating that event…autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for an expression of joyful gratitude. When it shall be observed, on the same day, throughout all the states and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never yet witnessed.
Here, Hale offers her readers a wonderful holiday and a reason to celebrate it: not because of New England history (which is irrelevant to most people at the time, and reprehensible to many people today), but because of an American expression of patriotism and gratitude. Northwood took off in the early years of 19th century domestic fiction. It was successful enough that Hale was poached to become the editor—though she used the word editress—of Ladies' Magazine in 1828. Nine years later, she was offered the editor job at Godey's Lady's Book, a home journal for women.
While at the time "for women" meant recipes and fashion and anything to do with the home, Hale wanted Godey's to be a literary platform. She tried to educate and enlighten her readers, not merely entertain them. She devoted much of the journal to publishing literature, especially written by women. She fiercely believed in equal education at a time when girls would learn the alphabet and then move onto sewing and domestic tasks, while boys would move onto arithmetic and literature. While she was not part of the suffragette movement, she helped found Vassar and was one of the most influential women at the time—most likely because she wasn't radical.
Thursday is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic Holiday.
But Godey's Lady's Book wasn't just for women. As editor, Hale rose the readership to up to 150,000 circulation by 1860, an incredible number for that time period. Godey's Lady's Book far outpaced rival magazines aimed towards men, and was the most popular publication until the late 1800s. Edgar Allan Poe published his early work in Godey's, along with Hawthorne and Washington Irving.
It was in Godey's that Hale began relentless campaign for a National Thanksgiving. From 1847 on, Hale published a yearly editorial calling upon states and territories to institute Thanksgiving. She wrote thousands of letters to prominent citizens, ambassadors, military commanders, governors, and seven presidents to call for a national celebration of the holiday. Before 1830, the public's perception of Thanksgiving was all hearsay and a few newspaper references (though people did celebrate it, as her family did; every president made a proclamation on the holiday's behalf, to no avail, until about 1815), but Hale swept in a damn movement.
But..why? Hale herself had moved from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania; her son moved all the way to Texas. America was growing faster than it could settle on an identity, and Hale had the foresight of thinking a widespread tradition could bind the country together. Her reasons behind Thanksgiving being national were mostly patriotic, saying in her 1860 editorial ("The New National Holiday.") the day would "awaken in American hearts the love of home and country, of thankfulness to God, and peace between brethren."
Hale's editorials gave countless reasons for Thanksgiving. She did everything from citing the Jewish Pentecost to explaining why autumn was great. She hardly ever brought up the pilgrims, as they were more of a fun anecdote than a justification for Thanksgiving. Some of her most repeated reasons include:
- "Agriculture labors of the year are completed."
- "All elections, State and National, will be closed."
- "Autumnal diseases have ceased."
- "The summer wanderers are gathered to their homes."
- "Thursday is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic Holiday."
Throughout these editorials, Hale mentions God about 70 times—so often, that governors across the United States came to think the Thanksgiving platform was an easy win for their constituency; frequently, Hale would count off the number of states and territories joining the Thanksgiving movement. Everyone loves a holiday, and a lot of Yankees traveling west recognized this old tradition. Hale would always include some report of a foreigner commenting on the "American holiday of thanksgiving," or feature letters from women using her recipes to celebrate. And she sometimes congratulated herself. In 1852, she wrote, "'The "Lady's Book' was the pioneer in this endeavor to give unity to the idea of Thanksgiving."
Should not the women of America have one festival in whose rejoicing they can fully participate?
Many of her pleas for national celebration suggest Hale honestly believed Thanksgiving could stop the Civil War. She wanted the South to celebrate Thanksgiving, even though it was a New England tradition. Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas joined quickly, possibly at least partially because Hale sent their governors yearly letters encouraging them to do so. But others were less willing. In 1856 Virginia governor Henry A. Wise called Thanksgiving a "theatrical claptrap." Basically, according to Robert Moss writing in Serious Eats, a lot of the South thought it was an abolitionist holiday. Wise was against slavery, so the South read all Hale's talk of "peace" and "unity" as propaganda.
After the Civil War started, Hale wrote to Lincoln himself, even enclosing her editorials as justification for the holiday. A day of peace and Thanksgiving makes a lot of sense to a nation that's completely divided, and Lincoln—as well as other politicians—had been interested in the idea before. In 1863, Lincoln made his famous Thanksgiving Proclamation, citing many of Hale's arguments about national unity, peace at home, and God. At long last, we got our four-day weekend.
By the time Thanksgiving became a national holiday, Hale—and her popular magazine—had already planted the idea in women's heads across the nation that this is something they would want to do. She published recipe books with a lot of the food that we associate with the holiday—roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed potatoes, and pies—giving us the roadmap to the holiday that we still follow today.
As America grew, established a (false) identity, and started thanking the pilgrims, we brushed aside the actual origin of Thanksgiving and the woman who started it. In an early editorial, according to Coleman, Hale points out that America has two national "festivals": one is Washington's birthday, celebrating a man, and the other is Independence Day, celebrating a war victory. But "the glorious autumn of the year, when blessings are gathered in, has no day of remembrance for her gifts of peace. Should not the women of America have one festival in whose rejoicing they can fully participate?"