Sarah_Hale_portraitby Hans Johnson

There have been celebrations of thanksgiving held in what is now the United States from the Spaniards in the 16th century to the colonists of Virginia in the early 1600s. But we remember the most famous such event in 1621: a three-day feast at the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts to mark a successful harvest after the end of a drought.

These days of celebration (after military victories as well) continued sporadically  both locally and nationally, like the one proclaimed by George Washington and the Continental Congress  after the defeat of the British at Saratoga, New York in 1777.

Sarah Josepha Hale (pictured right) was a self-educated young widow who began writing collections of poems and novels. Her most well-known work was the children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She became the editor of a magazine that had enormous influence on the culture of the mid-19th century.

Thanksgiving celebrations were common in Hale’s native New England, and so she began a 38-year campaign to advocate it as a national holiday in editorials and hundreds of letters to government officials. In 1846 she began writing to five successive presidents and her last letter, written to Abraham Lincoln in 1863, finally did the trick. (See it here, and scroll down for the text.)

100 years later as we gather to give thanks, we should also remember the woman responsible not only for rescuing this holiday from fading into obscurity, but for many recipes from her magazine more familiar to us than those of the Pilgrims.


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