Giving Thanks to Thanksgiving’s Patron

By Kathryn Finegan Clark

The holiday season is descending upon us and the debate goes on:  Which is your favorite of the celebrations bookended by Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day? If you’re a football fan, there is no debate, of course.

Like most of you, I enjoy all of the holidays – the religious significance, evergreen scent, candles and tinsel of Christmas, the mingled emotions of New Year’s when we say a thoughtful goodbye to the past and embark on the joy and challenges of a new year – a kind of perpetual second chance for those of us still trying to get it right.

But, if I had to vote for a favorite it would be Thanksgiving Day.

It was always so special when I was growing up. My mother, who worked with my father in his pharmacy, became a domestic diva the day before Thanksgiving. My grandmother lived with us and she joined my mother, happily beating and chopping and whisking in a steamy kitchen, turning a dead bird and a handful of vegetables and fruits into a feast for our extended family.

Opportunities far afield have snatched parts of our family away for Thanksgiving, although they usually make it home for Christmas, but I always think of my relatives in Texas and New York and California celebrating a common feast in their separate homes the same day that we do. We owe that happy fact to a woman writer for her persistent and successful quest to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

She was Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, born in New Hampshire in 1788. Fortunately for us, her parents believed women should be educated – a bizarre and far from ordinary notion at the time. She became a teacher in an age when the village schoolmarm was expected to remain unmarried. Required to leave her post because of her marriage, she and her husband, David Hale, a young lawyer, settled down to rear a family.

Her husband died in 1822 several days before their fifth child was born, but she continued with her interest in education writing essays, short stories, a novel and poems, including “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”  Her novel, “Northwood,” published in 1827, was the first to deal with the problems of slavery and was published more than 20 years before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

After the death of her husband, Ms. Hale started a business to support their five children.  She and a sister-in-law opened a millinery shop. Eventually, her writing prowess brought her a job offer as editor of the American Ladies’ Magazine in Boston, where she set about educating and enlightening her women readers. The magazine eventually was bought by Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1836, and she moved to Philadelphia five years later, to take the helm of the influential women’s magazine.

She used her position at the prestigious magazine as a pulpit for her social conscience. She preached the advancement of women, praising the then-embattled and courageous young women who chose to become physicians, urged proper nutrition, encouraged exercise for children and took her concerns to a national level. She was at least a century before her time.

She also was a woman not to be dismissed or sidetracked. In 1846  when Thanksgiving was still a parochial holiday, celebrated only in the handful of New England states, she began what was to become a 17-year campaign to have it designated a national holiday.  At that time, the only national holidays were Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day.

Ms. Hale wrote letters asking for Thanksgiving to be made a national holiday to successive American presidents – Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – who failed to hear her voice.

Finally, Abraham Lincoln listened to her plea and the president supported legislation to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Many hoped it would be a kind of unifying factor and distract from the threatened destruction of the union as it was played out on the battlefields.

Ms. Hale was no screaming feminist, wanting to overturn the social structure. She simply believed women should be educated so they could be more productive in whichever field they chose – a truly moderate stance that appeals to so many women today – stay-at-home moms as well as those pursuing careers. She would undoubtedly have smiled upon today’s amazing women who manage the joint lives of mothers and career women and still raise happy children.

Mostly we think about the pilgrims and the native Americans drawing together to thank the Almighty for their survival and the good luck delivered on them in the then wilderness. This year, though, as that fragrant roast turkey is placed front and center on the family dining table, it would be awfully appropriate and very nice to raise a glass to that amazing woman who drew us all together to say thanks.

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