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Retro Baltimore: Abe Lincoln and Sarah Hale, the mother of Thanksgiving

Retro Baltimore: Abe Lincoln and Sarah Hale, the mother of Thanksgiving
Sarah Josepha Hale was persistent in her quest to have Thanksgiving recognized by all in the United States. (Library of Congress)

The United States might seem like a tense place this post-election Thanksgiving season, but in 1863, it was worse.

That was the first year Americans began to regularly celebrate the holiday. For much of this country's history, people only celebrated Thanksgiving sporadically, and just in parts of New England, not in the entire United States.

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Sarah Josepha Hale set out to change that. Hale was the New Hampshire-born editor of Godey's Lady's Book, then one of the most widely circulated magazines in the world. She also wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb," just so you know.

Hale thought Thanksgiving needed to be celebrated on the same day throughout the U.S. "Then, indeed, the festival will be national, and joy and thankfulness pervade the whole land," she wrote in a Godey's editorial in 1848. She advocated for the holiday in letters to presidents, to governors and Godey's readers for over 15 years.

Not much happened, until she wrote to Abraham Lincoln.

In a letter dated Sept. 23, 1863, Hale urged Lincoln to make Thanksgiving "a National and fixed Union Festival" on the fourth Thursday of November. She explained her years-long lobbying campaign and the growing popularity of Thanksgiving among her readers. Even governors thought it was a good idea. The problem was the execution. It needed a presidential proclamation.

Perhaps Lincoln admired Hale's chutzpah. Or perhaps he thought it would boost Union morale in the middle of a war. Within days, he issued a proclamation that ran in The Baltimore Sun, among other papers.

"In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity," he wrote, "the American people should take some time for gratitude. War was confined to the battlefield, the cities were at peace. The plow hadn't stopped, industry continued and people were still having babies. Given this, Americans should reserve the last Thursday of the month as "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficient Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

And so Thanksgiving became a regular, annual holiday throughout the U.S.*

So, should the conversation at this year's Thanksgiving dinner table prove a bit too heated, why not take a moment to change the subject. Regale your fellow diners with the story of Sarah Josepha Hale, who helped bring people together for a meal during an actual war.

*This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly stated that FDR moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month in 1939. FDR temporarily moved the holiday to the penultimate Thursday of that month, in which there were five Thursdays.

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