Sarah Josepha Hale: The Godmother of Thanksgiving


Sarah Josepha Hale can be thanked for founding Thanksgiving!


How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday

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This Thanksgiving, take a little time to remember Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who helped make this national day of thanks possible. 

Who Was Sarah Josepha Hale?

Sarah Josepha Buell was born on October 24, 1788, on a farm in Newport, New Hampshire. From a tender age, she was curious, smart, and eager to learn.

As a young girl, Sarah was taught by her mother about history and literature. Later, her brother Horatio taught her everything that he was learning as a student at Dartmouth College.

When Sarah was growing up, women were not accepted as teachers. However, this didn’t stop Sarah from founding a private school when she was 18 years old. She taught until she met David Hale. They married in 1813.

David encouraged Sarah to write short stories and articles. Many of these were published in local newspapers.

Suddenly, in 1822, David died, and Sarah Hale was left to care for their five children. To make ends meet, she first operated a women’s hat shop and later resumed teaching and writing. Soon, she published her first book of poems, including one that became the famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” In 1827, she published her first novel.

image of Mary Had a Little LambMary Had a Little Lamb

John Blake of Boston read Hale’s novel and asked her to work for him on Ladies’ Magazine. She accepted and became the first woman editor of a magazine in the United States. Hale introduced new ideas and a new title, calling it American Ladies’ Magazine.

Within a few years, Louis Godey of Philadelphia had bought Blake’s magazine and merged it with Godey’s Lady’s Book, keeping Hale as editor.


How Did Sarah Josepha Hale Start Thanksgiving?

Throughout her time as an editor, Hale had written hundreds of letters to governors, ministers, newspaper editors, and every U.S. president with one request: that the last Thursday in November be set aside to “offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year.”

Native American harvest festivals had taken place for centuries in North America, and there had long been colonists’ services to give thanks, but there had never been a Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1863, with the country torn by the Civil War, Hale’s campaign finally got people’s attention. That September, she put her thanksgiving message into an editorial and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, urging him to make Thanksgiving Day a fixed national festival.

Lincoln liked Hale’s idea. On October 3, 1863, he issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November to be National Thanksgiving Day. He ordered all government offices in Washington closed on that day.

Hale enjoyed many Thanksgiving celebrations after that. She died on April 30, 1879, at the age of 90.


The Fourth Thursday in November

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt was pressured by store owners to move Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November. They wanted more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He did it, but millions of Americans continued to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November. In 1940, FDR realized his mistake. In the December 1941, he assigned the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November.

→ Read more about the history of Thanksgiving and discover some of our best Thanksgiving recipes!

Thanksgiving in Canada

Occasions for thanksgiving in Canada have been observed for hundreds of years. Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1879; its date each year was determined by proclamation. In 1957, Parliament set the second Monday in October as the fixed date “for general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured.” Read more about Canadian Thanksgiving.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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