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Mary had a Little Thanksgiving

In 1846, one of the country’s most influential female authors began a campaign that would occupy her for nearly twenty years. American writer Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential editor and the author of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” spent seventeen years campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Before Hale, Thanksgiving was only celebrated in New England. And even then commemorations were irregular. Before the holiday was nationally recognized, Americans in different states celebrated Thanksgiving on days ranging from October to January. And many Americans in the South had never even heard of such a holiday.

Presidential Pleas
But Hale worked hard to change that. Much of her campaigning in support of a national Thanksgiving holiday involved writing letters to political leaders. She petitioned five U.S. presidents— Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln—before Thanksgiving was finally made the United States’ third national holiday. (Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day were the only other nationally celebrated holidays at the time.)

Inspired by Hale’s proactive leadership, we came up with a few ideas to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that’d make her proud.

Trying for Turkey
As suggested by the long list of presidents whom Hale asked to legally recognize Thanksgiving as a national holiday, her first attempts to persuade political leaders were unsuccessful. Hale finally persuaded Lincoln, who supported legislation establishing the holiday in 1863.

Similarly, the recent presidential election and the volunteers who campaigned for their respective candidates demonstrate that change takes a lot of work. Take a civic engagement lesson from Hale and participate in causes that interest you. Contact your local representatives, volunteer and—of course—vote.

Rest & Relief
Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in the middle of the American Civil War. Recently widowed women, orphaned children and wounded men were invited to pause in gratitude despite their terrible troubles. The timing is significant. Lincoln’s declaration of Thanksgiving shows that celebrations unify groups, and that temporary retreat from one’s troubles provides much-needed rest.

Whose suffering can you ease in this Thanksgiving week? Serve at a soup kitchen or donate coats to protect your less fortunate friends from the coming months’ cold weather. Offer relief by raking your elderly neighbors’ leaves or fetching their groceries.

Hale’s notion of a national Thanksgiving was a unifying movement that offered relief in the wake of the civil war. The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday reminds us of our debt to Hale for her hard work and tireless civic engagement. Share gratitude with your friends and family this Thursday, and reflect on how you can better serve your community.