This week, as you’re passing the potatoes and arguing with your family over politics, take a second to ponder the story of Thanksgiving. What happened in history to make it possible for us to gather with our loved ones once a year and overeat until we almost pass out?
If you think you already know the history of Thanksgiving, we basically guarantee you’re wrong. Lucky for you, we here at Museum Hack love to tell a good story, so stick with us as we fill you in on the real hackstory of Thanksgiving.
The First Thanksgiving
Chances are, when you think about the history of Thanksgiving, you think about what we call “The First Thanksgiving” which took place in 1621. The traditional history of the First Thanksgiving goes something like this.
The Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620, fleeing religious persecution and seeking a place where they could live life on their own terms. They established a village (named Plymouth, after the place in England they had just left — they weren’t the most creative lot) and spent the next few months mainly dying. The winter was harsh, they had little food, and contagious diseases were running rampant throughout the battered population. Only half of the Pilgrims made it through their first winter to see the spring.
Once the weather broke, the Pilgrims’ luck changed. The Pilgrims met several members of local Native American tribes who spoke English.
Rather than being justifiably pissed that the Pilgrims established a village without asking, the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive by teaching them how to grow corn, harvest sap from maple trees, and generally do something other than continue to die.
After the Pilgrims successfully harvested their first round of corn, the governor, William Bradford, called for a Thanksgiving feast to celebrate. Members of the Wampanoag tribe joined the Pilgrims and the party lasted for three days. People ate, drank, and were merry while giving thanks for making it through the year.
Bam. Thanksgiving goals achieved.
A Thousand Thanksgivings
Or not quite.
The story of Thanksgiving doesn’t begin and end with the first Thanksgiving in 1621. In fact, it wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday in the United States.
What was happening in the meantime?
Well, different communities in the United States were having thanksgivings whenever they damn well pleased.
Particularly good harvest? Thanksgiving.
New treaties signed? Thanksgiving.
The end of a war? You guessed it. Thanksgiving.
Basically, people were celebrating days of thanksgiving when there was something to be thankful for. Different presidents, including George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, all declared days of thanksgiving during their presidencies, but these were one time events, not official, recurring national holidays. While some states adopted annual days of thanksgiving, there was no coordination between states.
Enter Sarah Josepha Hale.
Mother of Thanksgivings
Born in 1788, Sarah Josepha Hale was a writer, editor, and eternal champion of Thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale was raised in Newport, New Hampshire, by parents that believed in equal education for both genders. Young Sarah grew up and became a schoolteacher before marrying a lawyer named David Hale and giving birth to five children. Her husband died early in 1822, but he made up for it by leaving her a sizeable estate.
Though she wore black for the rest of her life as a sign of perpetual mourning, Hale didn’t let the death of her husband hold her back. She used the funds from her late husband to publish a collection of poems titled The Genius of Oblivion and then a novel called A New England Tale.
Hale’s work caught the attention of Reverend John Blake, who persuaded Hale to move to Boston and become the editor of Ladies’ Magazine. Despite her affinity for wearing black, Hale dispensed fashion tips and moral advice as the editor of two successful women’s periodicals of the time, Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady Book.
Hale also used the periodicals to launch her campaign for a national Thanksgiving.
Hale’s obsession with Thanksgiving can be traced back to her first novel, A New England Tale. In it, Hale devoted an entire freaking chapter to the Thanksgiving celebrations of her childhood, describing delicious food, intricate ceremonies, and family dynamics with a level of detail that would make George R. R. Martin proud.
Thanksgiving, according to Hale, was the ultimate national holiday, a day to take a step back and give thanks for all of the blessings that happened during the previous year, while eating an amazing meal. Hale thought a national Thanksgiving celebration would help bring the country closer together and began working in earnest to establish Thanksgiving in the 1830s.
In addition to launching a letter writing campaign, Hale used her position as editor to promote her ideas. She published Thanksgiving-themed poems, short stories about adorable families coming together for a great meal, and mouth-watering recipes for roast turkey and pumpkin pie.
Basically, Hale had zero chill when it came to a national Thanksgiving. She knew it was a good idea, and she fought for years to make it a reality.
Other people weren’t sold on Hale’s idea, however.
Some politicians saw a national day of thanks as violating the separation of church and state outlined in the Constitution, while others didn’t think the federal government should force holidays on the states. The South, obviously, chafed at the idea of celebrating a holiday championed by a bunch of New Englanders.
Hale didn’t care.
She continued to write letters to politicians and to make the case for Thanksgiving in her magazines. Finally, after three decades of fighting for Thanksgiving, Hale wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln making the case for a “National and fixed Union Festival” to be celebrated annually on the last Thursday in November.
Less than a week later, Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving proclamation, arguing that the people of the country, though embroiled in the terrible conflict of the Civil War, should take some time to reflect upon their many blessings.
Hale, of course, wasn’t completely satisfied by Lincoln’s proclamation. She continued to lobby to make Thanksgiving the law of the land through an act of Congress, but she died long before that would come to pass. It wasn’t until 1941 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a joint resolution, signed by Congress, that established the fourth Thursday of November as the Thanksgiving we know today.
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