As children, most of us learned the story of the Pilgrims and their feast honoring the bountiful harvest of 1621–due in large part to the Native Americans who gave them seeds and taught them to fish. The colonists had arrived at Plymouth Rock the previous December, and had so little food to get them though the winter that almost half of them died. I can only imagine the gratitude with which they came to the "First Thanksgiving," knowing they had enough food to survive their second winter, and shared the feast with those generous natives who taught them to survive.
Sarah Josepha Hale was a widow at age 34, and supported her 5 small children by sewing and writing poetry (including "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). Within a few years she had published her first novel and become the editor of "The Ladies Magazine."
Her contribution to Thanksgiving came from her unrelenting campaign of editorials and letters to governors and presidents urging Thanksgiving to be considered a national celebration. Mike Bellah (www.bestyears.com) quotes Hale:
"There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures."
It took her 40 years, but she finally convinced a president to create the national holiday. It was Abraham Lincoln who issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863, in the midst of Civil War. It was her hope, as well as President Lincoln's, that by joining together in giving thanks, unity among Americans could be renewed.
Although her efforts did not prevent the Civil War, her vision of Americans coming together in love and gratitude persists. As we share our Thanksgiving traditions tomorrow, I will be remembering one very determined woman: Mary Josepha Hale!