Anne Blue Wills, assistant professor of religion at Davidson, explains that the current version of Thanksgiving was created by a journalistic crusader, and would have been unrecognizable to the Pilgrims it supposedly honors.
The holiday came about through fifty years of relentless promotion by Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine. She promoted it in columns and stories in her magazine until President Abraham Lincoln finally bestowed it national recognition.
Wills emphasized that Thanksgiving was never a regular ritualized holiday during the Pilgrim era. Instead, it was an occasional event declared as needed by clergy to thank God for good fortune. Likewise, clergy also called parishioners to church for fasting days in response to adverse events. “Puritans emphasized that you should never presume on the will of God, so they never would have scheduled Thanksgivings,” she said.
What we now recognize as “the first Thanksgiving,” therefore, was simply an occasion for the Pilgrims to express their thanks to God for allowing them to kill enough game and gather enough harvest to survive the winter. True to Puritan character, the Pilgrims would have spent all day not in feasting, but in church contemplating the mercies of God’s covenantal love.
Hale was a New Hampshire widow struggling to support five children by her writing when, in the late 1820s, she came to the attention of Louis Godey, who had plans to launch a women’s magazine. Godey hired Hale in 1827 to edit the publication, and she did so for fifty years until retirement in 1877. From the beginning, Wills explained, Hale was a crusading type. “She freely used her magazine to promote causes like women’s education, and to raise a monument to honor those who fought and died at Bunker Hill. And Thanksgiving was another of her big concerns.”
Hale was concerned over increasing factionalism in American society, and envisioned Thanksgiving as a commonly-celebrated, patriotic holiday that would unite Americans in common purpose and values. She viewed those values as rooted in domesticity, and rural simplicity over urban sophistication.
The magazine, whose circulation peaked in 1860 at 150,000 per month, gave Hale tremendous access and influence to achieve her dream.
Through a monthly column that focused each November on Thanksgiving, Hale featured the celebration as a pious, patriotic holiday that lived on in the memory as a check against temptation, or as a comfort in times of trial. Hale and Godey’s led the way in creating a standardized celebration, which in turn created a standardized celebrant—a standardized and true American.
Her umbrella vision of Americans included social classes not generally given that credit by the nation’s white Protestant elite, to which Hale belonged. The stories in Godey’s depicted black servants, Roman Catholics, and Southerners celebrating Thanksgiving, and becoming more American by doing so.
Her Thanksgiving also showcased American values to the outside world. It demonstrated national traits of piety, attachment to the land, recognition of heritage, and dedication to hard work to Europeans, whom she considered decadent and urbanized.
In addition to her column, she promoted the holiday in more circumspect fashion through the fictional stories that the magazine published. “A lot of those stories made the reader assume that everyone spent the fourth Thursday in November celebrating Thanksgiving,” Will said.
The stories told about how Thanksgiving changed people’s lives, and put them in touch with the virtues that Hale believed the country represented. Wills cited as an example one story of a young, spoiled city girl who cared for little beyond her finery and personal appearance until she spent the Thanksgiving holiday on her aunt’s farm. That experience showed her that rural people enjoy a more grounded lifestyle, and that there are more important things in life than dances and stylish shoes. “The message is that the simple, pure, honest rural life, away from the temptations of the city, puts you in touch with true values,” said Will. “If we can just travel back to the old home place once a year we’ll be protected from temptations and evil.”
Hale’s vision of Thanksgiving also showcased the talents of women as nurturers and cooks. Wills said the reason Hale selected Thursday for the celebration was so that women would have time to prepare a substantial meal for the holiday, and enough time afterward to prepare the traditional Sunday meal. However, Hale never associated turkey with the holiday, favoring instead chicken and oysters.
Hale early on began calling on the president and Congress to declare Thanksgiving as a nation-wide event, and she pushed harder and harder each year as the rift between north and south became more threatening to the national unity she cherished.
She urged readers to lobby their representatives, and to write to her about their Thanksgiving experiences. They did, and Hale kept count each year of the growing number of celebrants.
Godey’s was the major women’s magazine of its day, and Hale’s campaign eventually had its desired influence. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln made the first declaration for a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
Hale became wealthy through the Godey’s, and the magazine’s Thanksgiving began to take on more commercial overtones. As the century unfolded and transportation improved, the wider variety of foods available was showcased in the magazine’s Thanksgiving meals, and stories discussed the type of clothing and decorations appropriate for the holiday.
While Wills credits Hale for originating the way we celebrate Thanksgiving today, she pointed out that further developments have led to current traditions that Hale could never have imagined. “For instance, I don’t think football games and making the day after Thanksgiving the biggest shopping day of the year ever crossed her mind,” Wills said.
Wills said her research hasn’t spoiled the magic of the occasion. “In some ways, it makes it more enjoyable because I can see where it’s come from,” she said.
Wills also gained a respect for Hale. She explained, “I do admire her. I don’t know if I would have liked her, but I admire her tenacity and vision. On some level she understood that a nation, a community, needs a festival, a symbolic event to renew people, and remind them of their values.”
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