Thanksgiving is one of America’s oldest and most beloved holidays. It is also our country’s most misunderstood holiday.
It might come as a surprise, but most of the traditions of this holiday originated with Victorian mothers rather than Pilgrim fathers.What’s more, if it hadn’t been for the unrelenting efforts of one Victorian lady, we probably wouldn’t be sitting down to dinner together as a nation on Thanksgiving.
In the first place, the very religious early settlers of New England believed days of ‘thanks giving’ to God were to be set apart for prayers and fasting, not feasting and merriment. Whenever the settlers needed divine deliverance from situations like drought or illness, a day of prayer and fasting would be declared. After their prayers had been answered, a day of “thanks giving” occurred with religious services.
Gradually the religious intensity that characterized both church and state functions lessened. Then, in 1789, America’s first national Thanksgiving Day observance as proclaimed by President George Washington in acknowledgement of the favors the Almighty had bestowed on the country, namely, for winning the Revolutionary War. For the next seventy-five years “Thanksgiving” was irregularly celebrated, with each state’s governor fixing the date the holiday was to occur.
All of this confusion drove Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the Victorian Godey’s Lady’s Book nearly crazy. Fervently patriotic and devoted to promoting the family and home as the bedrock of the nation, Mrs. Hale believed on day a year should be set aside for American families to gather together to acknowledge their blessings and celebrate the bounty of peace and plenty.
In 1827 she began what would become nearly a lifelong crusade for a uniform national observance of Thanksgiving. For more than three decades she wrote impassioned editorials and countless personal letters to every governor and ten presidents.
When her pleas fell on deaf male ears, she realized what her holiday needed was not the support of politicians but of women and their families. As editor of America’s most influential nineteenth-century women’s periodical, Mrs Hale was in a position to create in her readers’ imaginations a nostalgic, emotional longing for a holiday that never really existed.
She wrote: “I have thus endeavored to lay before my readers one of the strongest wishes of my heart, convinced that the general sentimate of feminine character throughout the United States will be far from finding it an objection that this idea of American Union Thanksgiving was suggested by a woman. The enjoyments are social, the feastings are domestic; therefore this annual festival is really the exponent of family happiness and household piety, which women should always seek to cultivate in their hearts and in their homes. God gave to man authority, to woman influence; she inspires and persuades; he convinces and compels. It has always been my aim to use my influence in this womanly way.”
Mrs. Hale’s womanly way of exerting influence was to publish tantalizing Thanksgiving Day menus featuring elaborate Victorian interpretations of Pilgrim fare (roast turkey with giblet gravy, creamed baby onions, and cranberry sauce), and sentimental.heart-wrenching redemption stories (just as the family prepares to say grace, the prodigal son or disgraced daughter who had run off to the big city would reappear to great rejoicing). “Let Thanksgiving, our American holiday…awaken in American hearts the love of home and of country, of thankfulness to God and peace between brethren,” Mrs Hale implored her readers.
Very quickly, nineteenth-century American women embraced the holiday. Before long the celebration of Thanksgiving entered the vernacular of popular culture: Currier and Ives captured the essence of the holiday in sentimental family tableaux, and Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, a friend of Sarah Hale’s and frequent contributor to Godey’s, wrote her famous ode to the holiday, “Over the River,” which is still sung today. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation in the Unites States, setting the last Thursday in November as a national holiday.