Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. A day of family gatherings, feasting, football and the last respite before the start of the Christmas shopping season. The focus is on spending time together rather than giving gifts and attending cocktail parties.
Thanksgiving began in 1621, when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to join them in celebration of the fall harvest. The Indians traveled for several days, created their own camp, and stayed with the Pilgrims for three days of feasting and celebration. This first Thanksgiving sounds similar to our tradition of family members invading a relative's home and staying there for days on end.
The holiday received official status in 1789, with George Washington's first presidential proclamation, which designated the 26th day of November next, to be set aside for Thanksgiving. "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor," he wrote.
For decades afterward, states set aside different dates to celebrate Thanksgiving. It took the persistent efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale to get the nation as a whole to observe a single day as Thanksgiving.
Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788. Her brother, Horatio, helped her receive an education by teaching her what he had learned at Dartmouth each time he returned home. After he received his diploma, he presented it to Sarah, in recognition of her accomplishment.
At 18, Sarah founded a private school and taught there until she met and married David Hale. While married, she wrote short stories and articles that were published in newspapers.
After Hale's sudden death when Sarah was in her late 30s and her failed attempt at making and selling women's hats, Sarah published a book that attracted the attention of the owner of a new women's magazine, Rev. John Blake, who hired her as editor.
Hale wrote poetry and fiction. One of her best known works is the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
Hale led a campaign for nearly 40 years for an official day of thanks to be celebrated throughout the country. She lobbied five presidents and wrote numerous newspaper editorials in support of a day of Thanksgiving.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. After receiving a letter from Hale urging him to set aside a permanent, single, day of Thanksgiving, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving.