Thanksgiving: The True Story

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Macmillan, Sep 16, 2008 - Juvenile Nonfiction - 149 pages
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Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans celebrate with a Thanksgiving meal. But what is the origin of this tradition? Did it really begin when the Pilgrims and Native Americans got together in 1621 in Plymouth,Massachusetts?

In her signature narrative nonfiction style, Penny Colman paints a fascinating picture of this cherished American holiday. She examines numerous Thanksgiving claims which were antecedents to the national holiday we celebrate today, raises the turkey question—does everyone eat turkey on Thanksgiving?—and shows Sarah Josepha Hale's instrumental role in establishing the holiday. Get ready to delve into the rich past of Thanksgiving in an enlightening history that uncovers the true story.

Thanksgiving is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.


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User Review  - flamingrosedrakon - LibraryThing

This was definitely an interesting and abbreviated read about Thanksgiving. I can say I truly enjoyed the thought of exploring the origins of this holiday since almost everyone knows the origins of ... Read full review


User Review  - Kirkus

After surveying "competing claims" for the first Thanksgiving from 1541 on, in Texas, Florida, Maine, Virginia and Massachusetts, Colman decides in favor of the 1621 event with the English colonists ... Read full review


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Sarah Josepha Hale’s Campaign

In 1837, Sarah Josepha Hale became the editor of what would become Godey’s Lady’s Book. Under her guidance, Godey’s Lady’s Book grew to have a circulation of 150, 000 readers, an astonishing number at that time. She used the pages of the magazine to advocate for her “suggestion” that: “THE LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY OF NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people.” (She carefully called her proposal a “suggestion,” so as to not seem unladylike.)

She selected the last Thursday in November for several reasons: “Because then the agricultural labors of the year are generally completed; the elections are over; those autumnal diseases which usually prevail more or less at the South have ceased, and the summer wanderers are gathered to their homes.” (July 1859) “Thursday,” Hale wrote, “is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic holiday.” She also pointed out that George Washington selected a Thursday in his Thanksgiving Proclamaion.

Year after year, Sarah Josepha Hale persisted in the “habit of urging on the attention of our readers and friends, . . .the plan of a National Thanksgiving.” Every year, she wrote a special editorial on the subject. She wrote thousands of letters to governors of states and territories and military commanders and ambassadors and five different presidents. She called upon the rest of the press to join in supporting her “suggestion.”

Much to Offer

Why was Sarah Josepha Hale so passionate about Thanksgiving? Undoubtedly she was influenced by growing up in New England where an annual autumn Thanksgiving Day was already well established. For her it was a special time for families to gather together to attend church and share a feast. She was also responding to the dramatic transformation of the United States.

Between 1790-1850 new modes of transportation were developed: Steamboat and canal, then railroads were built. New inventions appeared. Mills and factories were built. Large cities grew: Between 1790-1850, New York City’s population grew from 33,000 to 515, 000. People were on the move and families were spreading apart. Between 1790-1820, 800,000 people left New England and settled in Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois. Hale herself moved from New England to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her son William spent years in Galveston, Texas. In the 1840s, a mass of new immigrants poured into the country. Then there was the issue of slavery that was becoming increasingly contentious and divisive.

In such tumultuous times, Hale believed that a national Thanksgiving Day had much to offer America. Her vision was of all Americans “uniting as one Great Family Republic.” (11/67) She believed that celebrating a national Thanksgiving Day would “awaken in American hearts the love of home and country, of thankfulness to God, and peace between brethren.” For Hale, Thanksgiving “is a holiday especially worthy of our people. All its associations and all its influences are of the best kind. It reunites families and friends. It awakens kindly and generous sentiments. It promotes peace and good-will among our mixed population. It gives a festival for the homes of all, and to the homeless it brings one day in the year of gladness and plenty. If only for the charitable feeling which it rouses towards the poor, the suffering, and the helpless, the day has a value beyond all expression.”

In one of her editorials, Hale pointed out that Americans had only two national holidays to celebrate: Washington’s Birthday in February and the Fourth of July. “These are patriotic and political,” she wrote. “Are not the sounds of war borne on the breezes of those festivals? One comes in the cold of winter; the other in the heat of summer; while the glorious autumn of the year, when blessings are gathered in, has no day of remembrance for her gifts of peace. Should not the women of America have one festival in whose rejoicings they can fully participate?”

Americans Celebrate

Hale kept track of where and when Americans celebrated a national Thanksgiving Day. Her list included states and territories, American ships in various ports, and American missionaries and students and diplomats in foreign countries.

“Last year,” she wrote in her 1852 editorial, “twenty nine States, and all the Territorities, united in the festival. This year, we trust that Virginia and Vermont will come into this arrangement . . . .Henceforth wherever an American is found, the last Thursday in November would be the Thanksgiving Day . . . .[and] every heart would on one day in each year, beat in unison of enjoyment and thankfulness.” In a later editorial, she noted that Thanksgiving dinners were held in “London, Paris, Liverpool, Frankfort, Berlin, Florence, and Rome . . . .in Japan at the mouth of the Amoor River, in St. Petersburg and in Rio de Janeiro.”

Many of these celebrations were initiated by transplanted New Englanders and other settlers who cherished the holiday.

The governor of Oregon territory succumbed to the pressure of seventy-six Oregon City women. “Be it know that in conformity with the wishes of many citizens of Oregon,” he wrote, “I appoint and set apart Thursday, the 29th of December, 1859, as a day to be kept for PUBLIC THANKSGIVING.” (applebaum 122) The governor of Minnesota territory appeared to need a hint from someone, according to an account by Mrs. Isaac Atwater: “November passed and week by week New Englanders looked for the announcement of their ancient and beloved festival, but even the sacred last Thursday went by without it, and dismay and homesickness filled all hearts. Our good governor must have been of Scotch or Dutch pedigree to have overlooked a duty of such importance; but at last a hint was given him, a brief proclamation was forthcoming, and the day duly celebrated.”

A transplanted New Englander who lived in Louisiana observed the first Thanksgiving there on January 15, 1846. “Thanks to His excellency Governor Mouton!” the New Englander wrote to relatives in Indiana, “He has seen the evil of his ways, and has at length repented and announced that this year and ever after the people of Louisiana must celebrate a day of Thanksgiving. . . . We are going to try to have a real Yankee dinner, pumpkin pies and everything to match.”

The Opposition

Ironically, the idea that Thanksgiving was a New England tradition was one of the reasons people who were not native New Englanders were slow in adopting it. By the late 1880s, however, a widely read newspaper reported: “Each year Thanksgiving becomes more and more a national and less a New-England holiday.” Other people felt that a thanksgiving day should only be proclaimed for special events. Then there were people who resisted the idea of a national Thanksgiving: They thought it should be up to each state to decide the if and when of having an annual Thanksgiving Day. But these sentiments had little effect on the growing numbers of people who heeded Sarah Josepha Hale’s “suggestion” and gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November. In the mid-1840s, Frederika Bremer, a Swedish writer, traveled throughout America. “In America,” Bremer wrote, “there is annually celebrated what is called the Thanksgiving Festival. It occurs in the autumn when the harvest is finished. The families then assemble to rejoice together, and to distribute the earth’s best wealth amid praises of the giver.”

Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln

During the first two years of Civil War, the leaders of the Union and Confederacy — Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis--declared special days of thanksgiving for military victories. Lincoln declared one on August 6, 1863, to mark the Union victories, including the Battle of Gettysburg. About that time, Sarah Josepha Hale may have met with Lincoln. Although there is no record of their meeting, Hale’s grandson remembered his father saying that “his mother had visited President Lincoln and had found him a very kindly and interested gentleman.”

On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote to President Lincoln. The purpose of her letter was to “Entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November . . . as the National Thanksgiving . . . . 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.” She enclosed copies of three of her editorials with her letter.

A few days later, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November. He called upon “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe . . . a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

Lincoln’s proclamation was in the