Sarah J. Hale: The Mother of Thanksgiving As We Know It

The 19th-century editor and writer of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” actively promoted the writings and work of Connecticut’s Emma Willard and successfully lobbied Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.


The holiday of Thanksgiving is popularly thought to have originated with the Pilgrims in November of 1621. Not so. Many days of thanksgiving had actually occurred periodically in Virginia from 1607 in a variety of different colonies and states, for the act of having a day of thanksgiving was an old European tradition that had been practiced in places like England for centuries before 1621.

Though often held in November to celebrate a bountiful harvest, many days of thanksgiving were not even held in the autumn. George Washington, for example, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to celebrate victory in the Battle of Saratoga in December of 1777. The end of a drought in 1630 prompted a day of thanksgiving on July 30th of that year. The establishment of a new national government under the Constitution in 1789 prompted George Washington to call for a national day of thanksgiving to thank God for the many "signal favors" that He bestowed upon them "by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." President James Madison proclaimed two days for thanksgiving in 1815—neither of which occurred in the fall.

It wasn’t until Sarah Hall successfully lobbied Abraham Lincoln that a national holiday of Thanksgiving was first established on Nov. 26, 1863, by presidential proclamation.

Born in New Hampshire in 1788, Sarah Buell was an uncommon woman for her times. Fortunate to have parents who believed in the education of girls, Sarah also had a brother who shared daily with her the knowledge that he learned at Dartmouth College. As a result, Sarah became a teacher, a writer, and a most influential editor in her long and productive life.

Married in 1813 to a lawyer named David Hale, the happy couple spent many an evening cultivating her writing skills. These skills came in handy after David’s untimely death in 1823, leaving behind his wife and five children, the oldest of whom was 7. Sarah then used her writing and reading skills to help support her family. She became the first female editor of a magazine in the country with the appearance of the Ladies Magazine in Boston in 1828. By 1836 Louis Godey had purchased the magazine and eventually renamed it Godey’s Ladies Book. He hired Sarah Hale to be its editor. She remained in that position for the next 40 years.

In her capacity as editor, Sarah Hale steadily built up subscriptions and became a very influential person. Through the magazine she became the leading arbiter of fashion, cooking and taste, and also tirelessly promoted the education of women; in fact, she is credited with helping to establish Vassar College for women in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1861, an institution that did not become coed until 1969. Not surprisingly, she vigorously promoted the writing and life’s work of Connecticut’s own Emma Willard — another forceful advocate for the education of women. Besides writing "Mary Had A Little Lamb," Hale, however, is most well known for another of her passions: her desire to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

A tireless letter-writer, Sarah Hale had written to five Presidents before her pleas for the establishment of a national day of thanksgiving found traction with Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of the tremendous strife and loss of life caused by the Civil War, Lincoln felt that the nation, nevertheless, had much to give thanks for and therefore issued a presidential proclamation proclaiming Thanksgiving a national holiday for the first time ever on Nov. 26, 1863. His decision to do so is widely perceived as an act of national unification — an idea suggested to him by Sarah Hale. Every president since Lincoln has honored this tradition. Legislation passed on Dec. 26, 1941, and signed into law by FDR made the Thanksgiving holiday part of federal law.

Following Lincoln’s proclamation, Sarah Hale, a kind of Martha Stewart of her day, promoted ways to celebrate the holiday, especially by suggesting recipes appropriate for the holiday in her magazine. Central to these suggestions was the tradition of a turkey dinner and other traditional Thanksgiving fare such as pumpkin pie.

Prior to 1863, days of thanksgiving were celebrated sporadically in some of the states of the union for a variety of different reasons and at different times of the year. Sarah Hale’s tireless efforts to make Thanksgiving a national holiday celebrated on the last Thursday in November changed all of this. Furthermore, her many subsequent magazine articles have greatly influenced the way that Americans celebrate the holiday, especially with food. Other traditions — such as football games, turkey shoots, and celebratory parades — have since become part of the Thanksgiving holiday. However, no individual has been more influential in establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday than Sarah Hale, whose story can be read in Laurie Halse Anderson’s fine children’s book entitled Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving.

Notes and Sources

    1. Thank You Sarah : The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson
    2. Todayifoundout.com (November 19, 2010)
    3. "Sarah Josepha Hale" at womenwriters.net
    4. Godey’s Magazine issues are still prized today by book collectors, as the issues often contain beautiful hand-colored plates.
    5. Sarah Hale lived to be 91 years old. She died in 1879.
    6. Copies of Laurie Anderson’s book on Sarah Hale can be found for between $5-10 on bookfinder.com.
    Joene Hendry November 24, 2011 at 03:04 PM
    Thanks for this wonderful lesson, one that should replace all the Thanksgiving hoopla commonly taught in elementary schools.
    Jim Hartzell November 24, 2011 at 04:44 PM
    Other days of thanksgiving also date to the Spainish coming to the Americas. Isn't history grand. Hope your thanksgiving is a merry one.
    Susan Dean November 25, 2011 at 01:01 PM
    Thanks again, Phil. After all the "Mary had a little Lamb" singing done in my 23 years in kindergarten, it is nice to know its author. Most of the nursery rhymes have a hidden historical connection. Glad to have a list of your articles-some I missed. You should put these stories in a book! Happy Thanksgiving!


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