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What president made Thanksgiving a national holiday? Meet the woman who actually made it happen

The first Thanksgiving is believed to have taken place in November of 1621 between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at Plymouth

US President Joe Biden pardons the national Thanksgiving turkey, Liberty, during a pardoning ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC on November 20, 2023
Beatriz Colon
Beatriz ColonOnline News WriterNew York
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Growing up, American children are largely taught in school that Thanksgiving originated in November of 1621 after the Pilgrims that came in the Mayflower gathered with the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth for an autumn harvest.

Though most Americans later come to learn the history between Old World colonizers and Native Americans was nowhere near as picturesque – to say the least – 400 years later, Thanksgiving, its traditions and message of gratitude, plus of course its food, live on.

However, it would be another 242 years after the first Thanksgiving that it would be designated a national holiday, and another 62 after that when it was declared a federal holiday, specifically for the fourth Thursday of November.

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Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday on October 3, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln, who saw it as an opportunity to bring peace to the then-evolving United States, two years after the Civil War first started.

In his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln announced: "The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added…"

The proclamation reads like a State of the Union, where Lincoln maintained that despite the lack of peace in military affairs, "order has been maintained" across the country. He acknowledged a steady increase in population, and hinted at a continuation "of years with large increase of freedom."

Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln in 1963.© Getty
Lincoln was president from 1861 until his assassination in 1865

He declared: "I do, therefore, invite 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 the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

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However, as it so often is later revealed in the study of history, it was a woman, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale – a magazine editor who also penned the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb" – who really spearheaded the movement to proclaim Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Portrait ca. 1830 of Sarah Josepha Hale (1788 - 1879) nee Buell, American writer and editor. Married David Hale 1813, edited Ladies Magazine 1828-37, Godey's Lady's Book 1837-77. Wrote poems for children containing Mary  Had a Little Lamb and others© Getty
Hale campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday for almost 40 years

It was a lobbying effort she led for almost 40 years, by way of writing poetically of families gathering around to enjoy roast turkey, pumpkin pie and sweet potato pudding.

Hale used in her argument that not only the country at the time had "too few holidays," writes TIME, but also that President George Washington had already declared the first national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November in 1789. The holiday was subsequently celebrated anywhere between September and December, and was in fact a controversial one, with some governors at the time claiming a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer" violated the separation of church and state.

The First Thanksgiving in 1621, after a painting by Jean Leon Gerome; screen print, 1932.© Getty
1932 painting of the first Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome

Branded as the "godmother of Thanksgiving" for her steadfast campaign, it wasn't the only way Hale was a trendsetter. The magazine she led, Godey’s Lady's Book, was "[b]y far the most phenomenally successful of any magazine issued before the Civil War" TIME wrote in 1930, and it popularized traditions such as white wedding dresses (often credited to Queen Victoria of Britain) and Christmas trees.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt cutting a turkey for Thankgiving dinner next to his wife Eleanor Roosevelt on November 25, 1938© Getty
FDR in 1938 carving a turkey next to his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, two years before he declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday

Though she did not believe in women's suffrage, she was a staunch supporter of high-quality education for women (even if in an effort to best prepare them for their roles and wives and mothers), fought for their inclusion in the medical field amid the Civil War, and helped finance the all-female Vassar College, which was founded in 1861.

A widow and a mother to five children, she died in 1879 at the age of 91, 16 years after Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday and 62 years before Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it a federal one. (There was initial outrage that he celebrated it on the second to last Thursday of November, as opposed to the fifth and last.)

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