Give credit for the national holiday to a woman who wouldn’t give up

As legend that passes for history has it, in the fall of 1621 the settlers of Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts, grateful for a fruitful harvest, held a community-wide feast to express gratitude, inviting to join their table local native people who had given critically useful agricultural advice. And thus, the American tradition of the Thanksgiving holiday was born.

Good documentary evidence suggests that the 1621 feast did take place, pretty well as described.  But that gustatory event’s link to the modern American holiday is so tenuous that it can fairly be called myth. In We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, Denise Kiernan sets out to tell the true story of how Thanksgiving became an entrenched national holiday—for many, the year’s the most stress-free and happy one. Both the existence and “traditions” of Thanksgiving as Americans know it are the work of one woman: Sarah Josepha Hale, best remembered, if at all, as the author of the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace
By Denise Kiernan
Dutton, 2020; $25

Historically, days of thanksgiving decreed by local and even national authorities in the New World were a commonplace. Among early examples, Kiernan points to one called for by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541 in what is now the Texas panhandle; a similar convening at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565; one in a settlement on the Kennebec River in what is now Maine in 1607. In 1789, his first year as President, George Washington issued a proclamation calling for a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated throughout the 13 states. Thereafter local and national executives established days of thanksgiving, frequently honoring military actions, that dotted the calendar.

Hale wanted something else: a fixed holiday, occurring annually at the same time, on which the entire country celebrated together. She had access to a bully pulpit as editor of Louis Godey’s Ladies Book, one of the country’s most influential magazines.  Moreover, by buying their work, she had given an early boost to—and won the friendship of—such popular writers as Washington Irving, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In other words, she had clout.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the Ladies Book magazine, began campaigning for a national Thanksgiving holiday in 1837. In 1863, she finally persuaded Secretary of State William Seward to buttonhole President Abraham Lincoln about her idea. Lincoln got on board. (Library of Congress)

In 1837, her first year as Ladies Book editor, Hale began writing about Thanksgiving as a shared American experience, even though Americans only fitfully celebrated it. She kept up the editorial drumbeat, meanwhile moving to get the holiday recognized nationally and with uniformity. Starting with Zachary Taylor in 1849, she petitioned president after president for a national proclamation. Finally, in 1863 the dogged Hale persuaded Secretary of State William H. Seward to draft a proclamation and talk President Abraham Lincoln into signing it.

Every subsequent president followed with Thanksgiving Day proclamations, notwithstanding additional thanksgiving days proclaimed to mark particular 19th century milestones. In 1876 Yale played Princeton on Thanksgiving Day, beginning the tradition of top-tier gridiron battles on the holiday. In 1920, invoking an imminent holiday of much longer standing, 50 employees of the Gimbel department store marched along Philadelphia streets dressed as elves escorting Santa Claus, beginning the tradition of Thanksgiving Day parades. Not until 1941 did a congressional resolution make Thanksgiving a legal, permanent national holiday, changing the moveable feast’s date from the final Thursday in November to the fourth, bowing to merchants wanting what would in some years provide an earlier kickoff to the Christmas shopping season.

And the “traditional” Thanksgiving Day meal? Another Hale invention. Back in 1827, she had published a novel in which she described a New England “Thanksgiving entertainment” featuring a table laden with, among a cornucopia of treats, a roast turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. And those Puritans said to have begun it all in 1621? A late addition to the tale. Writes Kiernan, “In all of Sarah Josepha Hale’s letters to the presidents—including the one sent to Lincoln—not once did she mention the Pilgrims or 1621.” The first Presidential Thanksgiving proclamation to mention them was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1939.

Truth to tell, Kiernan doesn’t have much more to say about Hale and her campaign than would fill a respectable magazine article.  But she’s done prodigious research and wants to share its fruit. So she pads Gather with details only vaguely related, such as that poet Walt Whitman and illustrator Thomas Nast frequented the same New York City bar or that Dick Hagleberg is the name of the former bombardier who posed for Norman Rockwell’s 1945 Thanksgiving cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Irrelevant, but often mildly amusing.

The history Kiernan has uncovered is not a particularly important one nor does it provide much insight into the nation’s development. But she’s a good storyteller, We Gather Together is pleasant to read, and on a chilly November evening, that may well be enough. —Sauerkraut, lingonberries, butternut squash patties, and chocolate cake are among the traditional Thanksgiving dishes at the home of SCOTUS 101 columnist Daniel B. Moskowitz.