Thanksgiving wasn’t even about the Pilgrims – or even a holiday – until the 19th century.
In 1789, George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but only for that year, and it wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast but rather intended as a “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Enter a 19th-century author, poet and magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. She was editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years, from 1837 to 1877, when she was nearly 90 years old. She and her husband David Hale had five children, and when he died in 1822, she wore black for the rest of her life. Hale was an education advocate and, through the magazine she edited, became a famous figure in the country who set fashion, reading and cooking trends. Washington Irving Jr., Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes were among the authors who published work in her magazine. She was also a prolific author, writing dozens of novels and books of poetry, and penned (or co-penned, according to one account) the famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was published in 1830.
Hale, who was highly patriotic, read about the 1621 feast of the Pilgrims and became captivated with the idea of turning it into a national holiday. She published in the Godey’s Lady’s Book recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. She began a lobbying campaign to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, using her magazine to build public support by writing an editorial every year starting in 1846. She also sent letters to all governors in the United States and territories. In 1863, Lincoln did set Thanksgiving as an official holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year.