Happy Thanksgiving! In Episode 119, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit Newport, New Hampshire, the 1788 birthplace of Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale not only wrote the most famous nursery rhyme of all time, she lobbied governors, admirals, and U.S. presidents for decades to make a new federal holiday called Thanksgiving. Her determination paid off when President Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1863! We explore the history and mysteries of this holiday. We’re thankful to all of our legendary listeners!
Read the episode transcript.
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Additional Voice Talent: Sophie Belanger and Lorna Nogueira
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Sarah Josepha Hale – the Mother of Thanksgiving was born in Newport, New Hampshire, October 24, 1788.
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
Kid: Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow, And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.
JEFF: That’s really good! And do you know who wrote that nursery rhyme?
KID: Sarah Josepha Hale wrote it in 1830.
RAY: Smart kid!
JEFF: She is!
Kid: She was born in Newport, New Hampshire, October 24, 1788.
RAY: Wow! Is that why we’re in Newport today, Jeff? To look for Sarah Josepha Hale?
JEFF: Sort of. Hale didn’t only write Mary Had a Little Lamb, she’s also famous for something else.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: She’s considered the Mother of Thanksgiving.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger, and Happy Thanksgiving!
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, welcome to Episode 119 – the Thanksgiving Day Special Episode of the New England Legends podcast. Maybe you can listen to this episode with your family as you make your way over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.
JEFF: Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England. And we couldn’t do what we do without the help of our patreon patrons. If you’d like to become a bigger part of this movement, head over to Patreon.com/NewEnglandLegends and for as little as $3 per month you’ll get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes that no one else gets to hear. We are truly thankful for each of our patrons. You guys make this show happen, but there’s still room to grow.
RAY: If you’re thankful to have been listening to our stories for a while, we’re hoping you’ll also consider becoming a patron. Okay, Jeff. When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of Pilgrims and Indians eating a big meal in Plymouth in 1621. But you’re telling me Thanksgiving has a mother who was born here in Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788?
JEFF: That’s what I’m telling you. I’m also telling you it might be time to rethink the whole Pilgrims and Indians thing as well. Sarah Josepha Hale is a national treasure, not just for writing arguably the most famous nursery rhyme of all time in “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but for all of the work she did over a lifetime.
RAY: So we looked her up. She had parents who raised her believing it’s just as important to educate girls as boys. So she had more education than the average woman. She married David Hale and the couple had five children together, but sadly David died after nine years of marriage which left Sarah a single mother looking after five kids.
JEFF: Yet if not for that struggle we may not have had Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Thanksgiving. Because Sarah had to provide for her kids, she turned to writing and publishing. Her first book, Poems for Our Children, put her on the map. So let’s head back to the mid-1800s and set this up.
RAY: In 1827 Sarah Josepha Hale publishes her first novel, titled Northwood: Life North and South, but in London the book is retitled A New England Tale. It’s in this book that Sarah Hale paints a picture of New England as a model for America for prosperity. Part of that model, includes a holiday called Thanksgiving. Her description in the book will become a template for the holiday.
SARAH: A long table, formed by placing two of the ordinary size together, was set forth in the parlor; which being the best room, and ornamented with the best furniture, was seldom used, except on important occasions.
The table, covered with a damask cloth, vying in whiteness, and nearly equaling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romilly’s own hand, was no intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion; and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family.
The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being, at this season of the year, plentifully supplied, and every one proud of displaying his abundance and prosperity.
The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in the quarter.
The middle of the table is graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, and indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast.
RAY: My God I’m hungry now. How do you score an invite to Hale house?
JEFF: Yeah, she seems like a good person to have in your friend wheelhouse.
RAY: In 1837 Hale becomes editor of Lady’s Book magazine, and under her leadership the magazine grows to one of the largest and most influential periodicals of her time. Sarah Hale is a big, powerful voice in our country.
JEFF: And she’s also a big advocate for this holiday called Thanksgiving. At this point in time there are only two national holidays: George Washington’s birthday, and Independence Day.
RAY: There’s room for more holidays.
JEFF: There is. In 1840, Hale begins her letter writing campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She lobbies congressmen, she writes letters to governors, Naval admirals, and she writes a letter to the president of the United States.
RAY: She writes a letter to President Zachary Taylor.
JEFF: She writes a letter to Millard Fillmore suggesting Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
RAY: She writes to President Franklin Pierce.
JEFF: And she writes to President James Buchanan.
RAY: But all those letters and words fall on deaf ears for almost 20 years. But all that changes when she writes a letter on September 28, 1863 to President Abraham Lincoln.
Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book,” to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and – as I trust – even to the President of our Republic, of some importance.
This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.
You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.
The purpose of this letter is to entreat you, President Lincoln to put forth your Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.
With profound respect
Yours truly Sarah Josepha Hale
RAY: President Lincoln receives Sarah Hale’s letter, and wholeheartedly agreed that the nation does need Thanksgiving. The country is still at war with itself. The Civil War is taking a heavy toll on every state. A day for gratitude is exactly what we need.
JEFF: On October 3rd 1863, just days after receiving Hale’s letter, President Lincoln issues a presidential proclamation declaring the last Thursday of each November to be Thanksgiving Day nationwide. The following month, November 26, 1863, is the first annual federally-recognized day of thanks. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Okay, that’s pretty awesome, but I noticed Sarah Hale and President Lincoln decided on the last Thursday of the month.
JEFF: That’s right.
RAY: Why Thursday in the first place?
JEFF: Way back in 1789, President George Washington declared Thursday, November 26th as a nationwide day of public prayer and thanksgiving. He was celebrating the new nation called the United States of America and new federal constitution. But this was more of a one-off thing.
RAY: Right, but good ideas have a way of catching on. So some states carried on the tradition, though they never had a single day they agreed upon. Some states held it as early as September, some held Thanksgiving in October, others November.
JEFF: I think Sarah Hale picked the last Thursday of November because back in 1863, that was November 26th, which was a nod to President Washington’s first Thanksgiving. And from there it stuck.
RAY: Some other Thanksgiving fun facts, the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in 1924, and the state of New York was the first state to make Thanksgiving a statewide holiday.
JEFF: One part about Thanksgiving that’s never quite sat right with me is the story of the Puritans and the Wampanoags in 1621. Every school kid learns about that first Thanksgiving, and the story has become intertwined with the holiday.
RAY: Right, and considering what happened to the Native Americans shortly after 1621, it’s not always a pleasant story to tell. In fact, many Native American groups call this day a national day of mourning.
JEFF: That’s true. And though there were grave injustices done in the 1600s and even later, George Washington never mentioned the Puritans and Wampanoags in his first Thanksgiving declaration.
RAY: And re-reading Sarah Hale’s book and letter to President Lincoln, I also see no mention of Plymouth or pilgrims.
JEFF: Exactly. It wasn’t until later that someone tried to tie this holiday to its earliest roots in the country, and that’s how they landed at Plymouth in 1621.
RAY: It does seem a little silly, because a feast celebrating the year’s harvest appears in countless cultures around the world for thousands of years. 1621 wasn’t even close to the first Thanksgiving.
JEFF: So maybe if we can redefine this holiday back to what it was originally: a celebration of the harvest, and day of gratitude, thanks, and prayer, we can find some joy in it again.
RAY: Here’s hoping. But it’s also worth noting that Thanksgiving is no longer the last Thursday of November, it’s now the fourth Thursday.
JEFF: Right. For the first 80 years of Thanksgiving, there was no problem, then the 1930s rolled around and another holiday was starting to blow up into something pretty big.
JEFF: Christmas. Retailers complained that when November has five Thursdays, that just doesn’t leave enough shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those complaints reached all the way up to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who agreed that what’s good for the economy is good for America. There was some turmoil between 1939 and 1941 as different states celebrated Thanksgiving on different dates once again, but then on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a bill declaring Thanksgiving will fall on the fourth Thursday of the month, and that’s where it’s sat ever since.
RAY: And all of this began with a woman from Newport, New Hampshire, who knew a thing or two about setting out a feast for Thanksgiving. I’m just glad she chose turkey instead of… a little lamb.
[SFX SHEEP BAHHH]
RAY: Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
JEFF: Ha! I get it! Happy Thanksgiving, Ray. I’m grateful to spend some time with you each week exploring this wonderful and weird place called New England.
RAY: You too, Jeff. And Happy Thanksgiving to all of you Legendary Listeners. We appreciate each and every one of you. We also appreciate it when you post a review of our show on iTunes, and when you tell a friend or two about us. Help us build an even bigger and better community of legend seekers.
JEFF: We’re thankful for my daughter, Sophie Belanger and for Lorna Nogueira for lending their voice acting talents this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is the Friedels from Welcome, North Carolina, until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.
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