Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mary Had a Little Lamb, But Not for Thanksgiving

Every schoolchild knows the story of the first Thanksgiving feast:  the Pilgrims and the Indians in 1621.  There was sporadic adherence to it among the Colonists in the ensuing years however, usually reserved for celebrations of the endings of droughts, successful harvests, or victories in battles.  Not until 1777 did the Thirteen Colonists commemorate it as an actual day of Thanksgiving.  It was slow to catch on, though, and it continued its snail’s pace in reaching its place as an inviolable piece of American life, a resistance that held fast despite the 1789 declaration by George Washington that Thursday, November 26 would be “a public day of thanksgiving and prayer,”[1] with the distinct purpose of “giving thanks for the opportunity to form a new nation and the establishment of a new constitution.”[2]  I find it fascinating that it took an invincible midlife woman to inspire its ultimate establishment as a revered national holiday, an influence that only made its mark nearly two and one half centuries beyond the 1621 gathering of the continent’s indigenous people and their interlopers.    

                Sarah Josepha Hale was her name, and writing was her game, and hers is a prime example of the pen being mightier than the sword.  This nineteenth-century Mother of American Thanksgiving is best known as the author of the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, but she enjoyed a diverse writing career, one spanning six decades, during that time authoring several hundred poems and two dozen books, among them her hugely successful, first novel, an accomplishment that made her one of America’s premier women novelists.  In the United States titled Northwood:  Life North and South, and in England as A New England Tale, the pre-Civil War book also established her as one of the first of either gender to espouse in print the premise that “While slavery hurts and dehumanizes the slave absolutely, it also dehumanizes the masters and retards the psychological, moral and technological progress of the world.”

                Hale was the progenitor of several other progressive programs, among them her support of equal education for American females, particularly higher education for young women.  She demonstrated her commitment through her efforts in the founding of Vassar College, a groundbreaking event in the annals of women’s rights that she upheld unfailingly in her long writing and advocacy career.  In addition to establishing the first day nurseries for working women as well as public playgrounds, she was the first editor of the first women’s magazine, a publication in which she broke tradition and featured works by American writers rather than just reprinting periodicals from England.  The prestigious literary prize, the Sarah Josepha Hale Award, is named for her.

                An active and vociferous patriot, Hale understood the unifying nature of Thanksgiving better than most, and in an effort to have it designated as a national holiday, she wrote thousands of letters to movers and shakers of the country, including five Presidents of the United States, among them Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pearce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln.  Gaining the ear, or rather the eye, of Lincoln, her letter convinced him to support legislation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving.  The year was 1863, the mid-point of the Civil War.  The hope was that it would help in coalescing the nation and its culture.

In the words of my friend and fellow author, Donna R. Wood in her wonderful blog, Butterfly Phoenix, “As we gather at our tables of Thanksgiving, let us remember those who are not feasting at tables surrounded by family and friends.  Let us remember those who are gathered at tables where quarrels and discord are the norm.  And, let us be thankful for those who would lay down their lives for us, those who are taking their feast in a tent somewhere in the world; alone without the benefit of family.” 

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all. 

[2] Ibid
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