The Puritans invented Thanksgiving but it was the woman editor who wrote "Mary Had A Little Lamb" whose long campaign finally led President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim it a national holiday.
Thanksgiving marks its 125th anniversary as a national holiday this year, according to an article in the current issue of Country Living, and it also is the 200th birthday year of Sarah Josepha Hale, who was its champion.She was born in 1788 in Newport, N.H., and grew up on New England Thanksgivings despite their irregularity. As the Historical Society of Pennsylvania notes in an article on the history of Thanksgiving, New England governors marked a Thanksgiving Day for "general blessings" anywhere between September and January.
The significance of the last Thursday in November is that it was set aside in 1789 by George Washington to honor the newly minted Constitution.
When Hale was left a widow with five small children, she turned to writing and in her first novel described Thanksgiving, having one of her characters hope it would become "a national festival" that "would be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never witnessed." The successful novelist, despite "qualms about entering a field restricted entirely to men," for 13 years edited Boston's flourishing Ladies' Magazine, which merged in 1837 with rival Godey's Lady's Book in Philadelphia.
In 1846 Hale asked her readers if it would "be thought presumptuous that our `Book' . . . leads the way in the good work of union in Thanksgiving."
From then on summer editorials asked governors and readers to cooperate in a "national jubilee" on the last Thursday in November.
As the nation sprawled westward and the rift between North and South grew deeper, her editorials stressed the holiday's "moral and social reunion of the people of America" - a point she pressed in thousands of letters to governors, senators and every president from Zachary Taylor on.
Hale's Thanksgiving campaign took a new turn in 1863 in the aftermath of Gettysburg. That summer her editorial called for a presidential edict. She may have met with Lincoln before writing him in September on "a subject of deep interest."
Secretary of State William Seward, an old hand at Thanksgiving proclamations as a former New York governor, assured her he had commended the letter to Lincoln.
On Oct. 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a National Thanksgiving Proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November.