The upcoming holiday season will bring falling leaves, colder weather, thoughts of finals and hopefully the chance to spend some time with family and friends. Most people are familiar with the origins and history of Christmas, but the story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday isn’t as well known.
The Thanksgiving story history textbooks describe between Pilgrims and Native Americans is the early history of Thanksgiving but not the whole story of Thanksgiving. Textbooks never mention the one person who, some say, is responsible for and should be credited for Thanksgiving being a national holiday in the U.S. today — a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1621, to celebrate the harvest reaped by the Plymouth Colony after a harsh winter. In that year Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. The colonists celebrated it as a traditional English harvest feast and invited the local Wampanoag tribe to join them. The feast consisted of three days of eating, hunting and other activities.
After the first initial Thanksgiving feast, the holiday wasn’t officially observed again for another 168 years when President George Washington declared the first ever national Thanksgiving holiday, which took place on Thursday, November 26, 1789.
Although a declaration was made, this did not turn Thanksgiving into an annual tradition held on the same day each year. Each state scheduled its own holiday, some as early as October and others as late as January.
In 1846, American poet and author Sarah Josepha Hale, who penned the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began advocating and campaigning for the creation of Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday. Hale became interested in creating a national holiday after reading a book that detailed the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.
Hale wanted to recreate that feeling of love and good will between people by making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Hale’s Thanksgiving advocacy and campaigning would go on for the next 17 years. During that time Hale wrote letters to five presidents of the United States: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln.
Hale’s letter to Lincoln in 1863 finally persuaded a president to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving. The new holiday was seen by Lincoln as a way to unify the people of the U.S. during the Civil War. The first nationally recognized Thanksgiving took place on the last Thursday of November in 1863.
The next 75 years saw Thanksgiving observed on the same day every year: the last Thursday of November. However, in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving up a week, to the third Thursday of November, to give depression-era retailers more time to make money during the pre-Christmas shopping season.
Thanksgiving being moved was widely criticized by the American people, and in 1941 President Roosevelt signed a bill making the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day, which is still the current practice today.
So take a moment this Thanksgiving to remember Hale. Because of her years of advocacy and campaigning, we still today enjoy a national day of Thanksgiving.