Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Different Look at Thanksgiving

It has been something of a tradition of mine to write an article about gratitude every November. I’ve been thinking about it for several weeks … have made several vain attempts … and now, here it is Thanksgiving Day.

I was awakened today by Public Radio on the alarm clock/radio. (It’s the least annoying way I’ve found to get me up.) Any way, every day at exactly 10:55am EST, Garrison Keillor does a 5 minute segment called The Writers’ Almanac. Today he talked about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday … and I found it fascinating …

For those of us in the US, one of the first things we learn is school is about the 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving among the Pilgrims and local Indians that we have deemed “The First Thanksgiving.” It was prompted by a good harvest that year. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.

That we all know, but I learned something new today and in my inimitable way when I learn something new, I feel moved (more like compelled) to share it.

For many years following that first gathering, Thanksgiving was only celebrated in New England. Each state picked its own date for the holiday, some as early as October and others as late as January.  It was almost unheard of in the South.

It’s fairly common knowledge that it was Abraham Lincoln who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. What I was totally unaware of was that it took 17 years of advocating … and the force behind the effort was one single individual, a woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (October 24, 1788 - April 30, 1879)

An influential editor and writer (she authored the classic children’s nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb,” Sarah began her efforts in 1846. She wrote letters to five Presidents … Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln. Her initial attempts failed to produce any results, but finally after 17 long years, her letter to President Lincoln convinced him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving. That was in 1863.

With the intention of fostering a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November. Prior to this, the only National holidays were Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day.

It was not until December 26, 1941 that the date changed to the fourth Thursday (and not always final) in November - - this time by federal legislation. It was President Franklin Roosevelt who agreed to sign a bill into law with Congress, making Thanksgiving a national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.

And so, here we are … the article this year quite different from those in the past … but maybe not?

It would seem appropriate to me to take a moment and “feel” a sense of gratitude in our hearts for this tenacious woman .... Sarah Josepha Hale ... without whom we wouldn’t all be gathering together today to celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday at all.

P.S.  Hale was also an advocate for education. She believed and supported the idea that play and physical education are important learning experiences for children. In 1829, she wrote that "Physical health and its attendant cheerfulness promote a happy tone of moral feeling, and they are quite indispensable to successful intellectual effort."

She was also an early advocate of women's education, particularly higher education for women. She helped in the founding of Vassar College in 1861. Vassar was the first of the Seven Sisters colleges, higher education schools strictly for women and historically considered sister institutions to the Ivy League schools.

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