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My Turn: Sarah Josepha Hale, the godmother of Thanksgiving

  • This painting of Sarah Josepha Hale was created by James Reid Lambdin in the early 1800s. AP



For the Monitor
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” should be better known for giving us a national Thanksgiving holiday. According to Time magazine “her lobbying effort to make Thanksgiving a (national) holiday can be traced back to a passage in her 1827 novel Northwood.”

The novel depicted the festivity much as we know it today, and it was the start of her effort to make a local celebration national. Soon after it was published, the novel caught the eye of John Lauris Blake, an Episcopal clergyman born and raised on a farm in Northwood, but then living in Boston.

The Rev. Blake, after whose family Blake’s Hill in Northwood was named, had a long and illustrious teaching and writing career around New England, but “in his last years,” according to an old history of Northwood, “he lovingly turned to the place of his nativity.”

Blake was about to start a women’s magazine – the nation’s first – and wanted Hale to be editor. She agreed to do so, and it was from this platform that she continued fighting for a Thanksgiving holiday, one of the many causes she championed in her 91 years.

In the words of one Hale biographer, her Northwood: A Tale of New England “was a trend setter – perhaps the first novel to use the national scene as a background for a story. It was certainly the first novel of consequence by an American woman, and the first to deal forthrightly with the question of slavery.”

At the time of this novel, Thanksgiving was celebrated in New England and in some other states, but it was not a national holiday, and it was observed on different dates in different places.

Hale foresaw that the issue of slavery could tear the nation apart, and she thought a national holiday might help preserve the country whole.

Although Hale was from Newport, she set her novel in Northwood. “The turnpike, leading from Concord, NH, to Portsmouth, passes directly through the retired, but romantically situated town of Northwood, in the county of Rockingham.” The road goes by “Pleasant Pond,” to the east of which rises a “high mountain.”

The area, “which scarcely 50 years ago was an unexplored wilderness,” by 1827 consisted of “a dozen wooden houses, built on a street running east and west, with a meeting house, as it was called, on a rise of ground.” These houses were “placed plump on the highway.” One of the buildings, “where the turnpike entered the western part of the town” was a tavern owned and operated by a Landlord Holmes.

Northwood is depicted as an ideal New England village inhabited by salt-of-the-earth Yankees. “The little village . . . offered few temptations to the speculator, and the soil promised no indulgence to the idle, but it abundantly repaid the industrious cultivator. It was therefore inhabited, almost exclusively,” not by gentleman farmers with servants and laborers, but by “husbandmen who tilled their own farms with their own hands, laboring actively six days a week, and on the seventh offering to that Being who alone could crown their labors with success, the unfeigned homage of contented minds and grateful hearts.”

Northwood’s farmers in “the simplicity and purity of their manners and morals” had established “a happy society,” a society created by “unremitting industry.” It was a town where no one ever locked a door or window.

The book describes one Northwood farm family’s Thanksgiving feast. It was sumptuous, with a roasted turkey at the head of a table full of delectable dishes, including, of course, “the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.” The table also included other meats, vegetables and desserts, but the turkey and the pumpkin pie “took precedence.” Once the food was blessed and God was thanked for all His bounty and mercy, people began eating with “little of ceremony.”

Before dinner the farmer explains the custom of Thanksgiving to an English guest. The holiday, he says, is “a tribute of gratitude to God” for “the overflowing garners of America.” He hopes it will be “universally observed” as a way to show thanks “for our republican institutions, which are based on the acknowledgment that God is our Lord, and that, as a nation, we derive our privileges and blessings from Him.”

Hale frequently expressed the fear that America would be torn apart by racial and economic issues. She saw a unified national Thanksgiving day as a way to unite families – a kind of old home day – and to unite America in giving thanks to God for our land and liberty.

Her Thanksgiving campaign was to continue for decades. She wrote numerous editorials in her magazine and wrote thousands of letters to public officials, opinion makers and presidents seeking their support. Finally she wrote to Abraham Lincoln. There’s even speculation she met with him on this subject.

A few days after her letter to him, and in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln issued his famous Thanksgiving Declaration urging all Americans “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.”

Although most states continued that observance, it was not until a Congressional act in 1941 that all Americans observed Thanksgiving on the same day.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a remarkable woman. Widowed at age 34 with 5 young children, she managed, in her long life, an extraordinary number of accomplishments. She fought for the emancipation of the slaves, the rights of women and the unity of America. She helped preserve George Washington’s Mount Vernon, build the Bunker Hill Monument and establish Vassar as a college for women. She founded the Seaman’s Society to aid sailors and their families. She edited the nation’s most influential women’s journal for more than 40 years and wrote nearly 50 books – novels, poetry and nonfiction.

Her words, the lyrics of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” were the first ever recorded on Thomas Edison’s new invention – the phonograph – and they were spoken by Edison himself. Last year, 137 years after her death, the New England Newspaper and Press Association awarded her its highest honor for her lifetime achievements. The Episcopal Church honors her with an annual liturgical feast day.

One of her greatest achievements was the establishment of Thanksgiving. Her vision was that “wherever an American is found, the last Thursday (of November) would be the Thanksgiving Day. Families may be separated so widely that personal reunion would be impossible; still this festival, like the Fourth of July, will bring every American heart into harmony with his home and his country.”

Her hope was realized at last, and it all started with Northwood.

The Pilgrim Hall Museum fittingly calls New Hampshire’s Sarah Josepha Hale the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”

(Michael Faiella lives in Northwood.)