Posted by: Tara Aarness | November 17, 2010

Single Mother’s Turkey Makes History; President Declares National Holiday

November brings with it not just the cold, brutalities of an emerging winter, but the beginning of the holiday season and all the hopes, promises, and stresses it holds. While each of us remembers from our grade school days of the story of our nation’s first Thanksgiving, the real story of how it became a national holiday has been less publicized. Being a single parent is never easy, but being a single parent with five, young children and attempting to change a nation during war-time? Seems impossible, yet that is exactly what one middle-aged woman accomplished.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Sarah Josepha Hale is her daughter. Hale was only 34 when her husband of nine years suddenly died, leaving her with five children, the youngest born two weeks after his death. In a time when the women’s movement was unheard of, as women were not yet considered equal, Hale began acquiring positions such as sewing to help keep her land, her home, and her family together. But it was her writing and creativity which gained the approval from one our history’s most influential presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

After becoming an editor with Lady’s Magazine, which eventually became Goedy’s Lady’s Book, Hale penned the much-loved nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, as well as established child day care for working mothers, fought for equal education for girls, was the first to suggest public playgrounds for all children, and made it her life’s mission to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday.

Her first book, Northwood, published in 1839 and it is within these pages that the scene of the first traditional American Thanksgiving took place:

”The table, covered with a damask cloth, viewing in whiteness, and nearly equaling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romilly’s own hand, was now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion; and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family.  The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being, at this season of the year, plentifully supplied, and every one proud of displaying his abundance and prosperity.
The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting.  At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter.  A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.  This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast.  The one now displayed could never have had many peers…

Plates of pickles, preserves and butter, and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers.  A side table was literally loaded with the preparations for the second course, placed there to obviate the necessity of leaving the apartment during the repast…

There was a huge plum pudding, custards and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.  There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits.

On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant wine, and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer – a beverage Mrs. Romilly prided herself on preparing in perfection.”

With modern society and modern advances, a feast such as this is almost unheard of and our waistlines thank us. However it was the power of her words that eventually gained the attention of President Lincoln and changed a nation.

Composing hundreds of handwritten letters of her perception of significance and unity of Thanksgiving were heard, however went unnoticed. After all, there was a nation literally torn by civil unrest, as brother fought brother in the Civil War, and there seemed very little time or strength to consider such frivolities. In her editorial, she wrote of her frustration and implored all to consider her passion. Though it served as an obvious rhetorical statement, she took aim and fired at will to those who questioned her reasoning:

“Would it not be of great advantage, socially, nationally, religiously, to have the day of our American Thanksgiving positively settled?  Putting aside the sectional feelings and local incidents that might be urged by any single State or isolated Territory that desired to choose its own time, would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become nationally in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?  

Taking this view of the case, would it not be better that the proclamation which appoints Thursday the 26th of November (1863) as the day of Thanksgiving for the people of the United States of America should, in the first instance, emanate from the President of the Republic to be applied by the Governors of each and every State, in acquiescence with the chief executive adviser?”

Deeply unsatisfied, on September 28, 1863 she penned her famous letter to President Lincoln and finally gained real progress:  

”As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.”


The letter today remains in the care of the Library of Congress, among the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. Her effort of uniting a nation through their stomachs was achieved, and on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued the proclamation that encouraged all Americans to see the last Thursday in November as a day of thanks. And indeed, Americans from coast to coast hailed Sarah for her determination and mastery of linguistics. Martha Stewart could only hope to be so powerful.

The following years brought about a tradition that finally gained the seal of approval by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he signed the bill into law on November 26, 1941, just a mere 62 years after her death. Thanks, Sarah.


  1. Lovely story! So well written, a wonderful reminder, and new information for many. I plan to print this out and read it at my home on Thanksgiving! WOMEN RULE!

  2. Lol Thank you for the fabulous compliments and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Keep comin’ back, as there’s BIG changes ahead! 😉

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