‘Sarah Saves Thanksgiving’

Did you know there was a time in American history when, little by little, we stopped celebrating Thanksgiving? It’s true. By the mid-1800s, this special day of thanks was at serious risk of extinction. Fortunately for us, there was a very persistent woman named Sarah Josepha Hale who never stopped believing in Thanksgiving.

Why was America giving up on Thanksgiving? By 1850, the country was very busy growing, with fifteen new states being added to the union between 1800 and 1850. Over 200 years had passed since 1621, and the famous feast shared by the early pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. New western states, like California, didn’t share the same memories as “Yankees” in New England. Thanksgiving festivities were fading fast from the American scene.

Americans ignoring Thanksgiving really bugged Sarah Josepha Hale, and she was stubborn enough and determined enough to make a difference.

When something bothered Sarah Hale, she used the power of her pen. Sarah was the editor of a prominent women’s magazine and she used this platform to express her opinions about why it was so important to keep the tradition of Thanksgiving alive in the American family. “If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?”

She didn’t stop with the magazine, though. She wrote letters, thousands of them, year after year. In her letters, she urged that Thanksgiving be recognized as a national holiday. Mostly, she was ignored. But she never stopped trying.


After 38 years of hand writing thousands of letters, publishing editorials, and pleading to five consecutive presidents, Sarah’s plea was answered. Abraham Lincoln agreed with Sarah’s call for Thanksgiving and finally, in 1863, he proclaimed that the last Thursday of November would be a national holiday, Thanksgiving. The timing was critical. America was divided; the Civil War was in full force, and President Lincoln needed something like Thanksgiving to help put the United States back together again.

It seems Sarah never put her pen down. In addition to her campaign for Thanksgiving, Sarah wrote articles and letters advocating higher education for women. She wrote about manners, fashion, and health. She wrote stories for women, for men, and for children. Sarah also loved writing poetry. In 1830, she wrote one of our favorite childhood poems, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

For most Americans today, Thanksgiving is about turkey, stuffing, and a day off from school and work. We think of football games, family gatherings, and holiday shopping. Many families and individuals embrace this special time to help others less fortunate and to give thanks for their many blessings. Whatever Thanksgiving means for you, remember to thank Sarah Josepha Hale, who saved Thanksgiving. And remember, it is possible to make a difference in the world, all with the power of a pen.

Special thanks to Erin O’Shea for her illustration. To see more of her work, visit

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