A modern take on Thanksgiving. Image from Saveur.com.

A modern take on Thanksgiving. Image from Saveur.com.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

I hope you’re all excited for loading up on turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, potatoes, sweet potatoes and every pie flavour under the (winter) sun alongside your loved ones. Did you know that Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year for travelling in the USA? And that over 38.4 million people travelled more than 50 miles to their families to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2009? I hope you don’t have to travel that far! For those of you not from the USA, Thanksgiving is a holiday all about taking time to remember the things you are thankful for, spending time with family, and, most importantly, eating as much yummy, cozy food as you are physically able to stuff into your face!

The usual story is that Thanksgiving started with the famous 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts: a feast shared between the European pilgrims new to America and Native Americans who helped them survive that first harsh New England winter. This is a sweet, but simplified origin story for the Thanksgiving holiday–and not just because it glosses over the struggles of Native Americans arising from the European settlers. It also doesn’t tell you that Thanksgiving was only made an official national holiday in 1863! Thomas Jefferson even called the suggestion of a national Thanksgiving holiday “the most ridiculous idea ever conceived.” So this holiday–though inexorably intertwined with American national identity–is not as old a tradition as it seems!

To fully appreciate having this holiday, we have to give some thanks to an awesome lady who helped create the holiday we enjoy today: Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), aka the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” Since there wasn’t a specific historical basis or tradition for how to celebrate Thanksgiving, we can hold Hale responsible for the cozy Thanksgivings that we celebrate today! One of her novels, Northwood: A Tale of New England, introduces the Thanksgiving meal we all know and love today: a “lordly” turkey reigning over scores of delicious dishes and “pies of every description known in Yankee land.”

Sarah Hale's letter to President Lincoln. Wikimedia Commons.

Sarah Hale’s letter to President Lincoln. Wikimedia Commons.

Hale was an educated and influential nineteenth century writer and editor of the popular magazine, Godey’s Ladies Book. She was a taste-maker for fashion, literature and cooking for contemporary well-to-do women. She launched a massive campaign to make Thanksgiving into a national holiday, writing to multiple presidents trying to convince them to make it an official holiday–uniting the United States of America and bringing “peace between brethren” at a time of social change and North-South tensions. Finally in 1863, during the Civil War and following persuasive letters from Hale, Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Sarah also used her influence and determination to make other important changes in the young country she lived in. A self-educated woman who had been a teacher before her literary career, Sarah from a young age lamented that “of all the books I saw, few were written by Americans, and none by women.” Later, she made a point of helping tip the balance the other way in her magazine, and was also the first person to advocate having women teachers in public schools. Another claim to fame is that Sarah’s book, Poems for Our Children, first published Mary Had a Little Lamb!

For more information on Thanksgiving, consider checking out Penny Colman’s book,¬†Thanksgiving: The True Story.

-Jess Meagher
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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