The Holiday that Almost Wasn’t

Posted by Michelle Van de Riet

This week our nation looks forward to taking a couple days off work, getting together with family and friends, and feasting on the annual goodies that have become central to our various Thanksgiving traditions.  In our case, local family members will make a short drive across state lines to join us, and we will connect via FaceTime with others farther away in Virginia and California.  Many people I know are getting together with old friends and some with new acquaintances: reflecting the generous and welcoming nature of this holiday.  But all of us in the United States have one thing in common; we celebrate on the same day.  

Did you know that this almost didn’t happen?  Thanksgiving could very easily be – to this day- a holiday celebrated during different months in each state, or in some states, not at all.  The vision for this national, unified holiday all started with one very persistent woman, who did not give up on her dream.  

Sarah Josepha Hale was an accomplished teacher, novelist, poet, editor, and publisher, as well as a strong advocate in the fight for women to enter the field of medicine.  She launched her career after the tragic death of her husband, and became a trail blazer for women’s education, establishing a female seminary and college.  She wrote the original poem that became, “Mary had a Little Lamb,” and founded the publishing house that printed the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allen Poe, and Nathanial Hawthorne.  

But for years, Sarah was not successful with one specific passion.  She believed that Thanksgiving, celebrated on various dates in primarily New England, should be a national, unified holiday.  Over time, she corresponded with four US presidents, imploring them to take up her cause.  Each one rejected her.   She could very easily have given up, but she reached out one last time to a fifth president.  The odds were against her, because this president was consumed in a crisis unlike anything his predecessors had known, and would certainly not have time to read one unimportant letter.  

In the summer of 1863, the Union Army defeated the Confederates at both the battle of Gettysburg and the siege of Vicksburg, laying a path to the North’s ultimate victory.  While this was a turning point in the Civil War in military terms, Abraham Lincoln was not a popular president at this time.  His Emancipation Proclamation the previous year had resulted in a loss of the House of Representatives and set many Northern politicians against him.  One political writer of the time noted, “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President.  It does not exist.  He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head.  If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would not get the vote of one state” (Evidence for The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln). 

It was within this backdrop that Sarah Hale penned a letter to President Lincoln, asking him to declare a national day of Thanksgiving.  Not only did he respond to her request, but he issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863.  He did not refer to the day as simply, “Thanksgiving,” but as, “A day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…” (Proclamation of Thanksgiving).

His words still ring true today.  The addition of the word, “praise,” reminds us not only to be thankful but that there is Someone who is in fact – the object of our thanks.  The proclamation goes on to mention the increase in population growth, celebrating new life despite the devastating loss of life that the nation had endured and states, “The country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to except continuance of years with large increase of freedom.  No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…”. 

The dream of a unified national holiday might not have been as significant at any other historical time, but Sarah Hale’s letter spoke deeply to a man who faced such insurmountable opposition.  Abraham Lincoln saw her vision and gave this proclamation during a great time of personal and national need.  He knew that the victory was in God alone and put feet to the final verse in Frances Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner, “Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land, praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.”   

We all know the stereotype of the one family member who shows up at Thanksgiving and can’t stop talking about politics.  And then everyone else is like, “Stop it.  We just want to watch football and eat in peace!”  The truth is, as much as we might try to stay away from certain topics, they inevitably happen.  So if some uncomfortable discourse occurs at your Thanksgiving table this year, consider the fact that this very conversation might just be a fulfillment of the dreams that Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln had more than 150 years ago.  We have received a gracious gift from the Most High God and experienced a large increase of freedom.  On Thanksgiving Day, we not only tolerate the differences we have, but we celebrate our unity as we share a meal together, on the same day, in every state of this great nation.