By Susan Delay
When Sarah Josepha Hale’s husband died, she had to figure out a way to support her five children. Career options were not plentiful for women, seeing as it was fairly early in the 18th century. After exploring the fields of nursing and teaching, she chose the path she hoped would pay the best—writing.
Anyone who has written, or is writing, or wants to write may take a moment to laugh. I’ll wait.
But Sarah bravely forged ahead and made her mark as a poet who wrote a little piece you probably know: Mary Had a Little Lamb.
While Sarah’s name is not much more than a footnote in history books, Americans owe her a lot—and not for the poem. If it hadn’t been for her, you might never have experienced a true American Thanksgiving holiday. No turkey. No stuffing. No pumpkin pie. No football. No long holiday weekend. (It’s a long list.)
Sarah lived long before television, frozen Butterball turkeys with pop-up sensors, football, or cranberry sauce in a can. You couldn’t call Bob Evans and order a prepared meal that you only had to transfer into your own serving dishes, place on the table and pretend like you’d been slaving away in the kitchen since before dawn.
In 1830, there was no official Thanksgiving holiday. Not that Americans were opposed to gratitude. There had been previous attempts at a national observance. George Washington signed a decree declaring November 26 as A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer. It wasn’t the three-day feast celebrated in 1621 by Pilgrims and Indians. Instead, it was a day to be “observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many favors of Almighty God.”
Before Washington’s decree, early Americans occasionally set aside random days of thanksgiving devoted to prayer and fasting. My, how things have changed. Now it’s a day devoted to carbs and feasting. First, we stuff the turkey, then we stuff ourselves.
Subsequent US Presidents moved Washington’s designated day of gratitude all over the calendar. John Adams wanted May 9 as a day of solemn humility, fasting, and prayer. James Madison was in favor of January 12 and turkey was optional. Pretty soon, people lost interest and by 1830, there was no national day devoted to Thanksgiving.
Enter Sarah, who was on a mission to change all that. Sarah was well-known to US presidents, governors, preachers, and newspaper editors as she spent years asking, petitioning, pleading, demanding, and downright annoying them in her persistence to establish a national day of Thanksgiving.
Her motivation ran deeper than a big-dinner day. It was a time in our country’s history when tensions were heating up between the North and South. Sarah believed uniting Americans in thanksgiving was a way to avert dissension and maybe—just maybe—heal the nation. It was Abraham Lincoln who gave in to her persistence. It happened too late to avoid the Civil War, but Sarah’s dream finally came true in 1863 when Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November as America’s official Thanksgiving Day.
Without Sarah Hale, we would not be going around the table once a year expressing something for which we are grateful. We would not be retiring to the television to watch football at the end of the meal. We would not create extensive lists in preparation for the biggest shopping day of the year.
Worst of all, there would be no turkey sandwiches the next day.
Susan DeLay is from the Buckeye State where she took her first paying job at the age of 15, writing a newspaper column called Teen Talk. She lived in the Chicagoland area for 20-some years before giving away her shovel and ice scraper and moving to The Villages.
An industry veteran in publishing services, PR, and media relations, Susan wrote “DeLayed Reaction,” a newspaper column, for 25 years. The column is now a blog at www.susandelay.wordpress.com.
She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, The Florida Writers Association, Pen, Paper & Pals, The Writers League of the Villages, and Working Writers Critique Group. She is currently learning that poems don’t have to rhyme and is working on a novel entitled “Saving Jesus.”