“Thank you, Sarah” by Laurie Halse Anderson is one of our favorite Thanksgiving books to read in the month of November. It’s witty, informative, and the illustrations by Matt Faulkner are fantastic.
This month as I read this particular book, I found myself getting a little choked up as it sank in just how much effort went into making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Most Americans are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims coming to the New World in search of religious freedom. They struggled to survive the first winter and were ultimately saved by forging relationships with the more experienced Native Americans. As a celebration of a rich harvest, and in deep gratitude for help – local and divine – the Pilgrims and Native Americans enjoyed a feast that lasted several days.
But, this book explains how the tradition of the American Thanksgiving didn’t really become a national celebration until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln made an official declaration about the holiday. That moment of achievement was probably most greatly felt by Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah spent 38 years, roughly my entire life so far, writing letters to five different US presidents in an effort to make Thanksgiving official. That is long time, and A LOT of work.
Why did it matter so much? As early as 1776, at the very beginning of our nation’s official history, various states had already designated their own day for feast and thanksgiving. That’s pretty good. But for Sarah Hale, editor and author, it wasn’t enough. She had a sense that our young nation needed something more than the 4th of July as a unique American day of celebration. She used her skill of writing and her position as editor at Ladies’ Magazine to mobilize efforts around the idea of a unified day of gratitude. The first four presidents either agreed with the state-level approach, or were increasingly distracted by other issues, such as an impending civil war.
Perhaps our nation needed the right environment to understand the importance of unity and patriotism, because it wasn’t until our nation had fallen to its lowest depths, particularly the Battle at Gettysburg, before we were ready to unify around this holiday. The Civil War, a dark time of polarization and bloodshed, proved to be the right fertile ground for Sarah Hale’s idea.
I feel, more than ever, the power of someone like Sarah Hale and what she did by continually planting good ideas. Season after season she would plant her idea of a national Thanksgiving, with little to no harvest. And yet, she never stopped planting.
If we ever feel discouraged, we can take heart from the stories and examples of those who have gone before. We can continue to plant those good ideas, even if our harvest is delayed a few years. According to Halse-Anderson’s retelling of Sarah Hale’s story, change requires men and women who are “bold, brave, stubborn, and smart”. We might appear to be dainty ladies, like Sarah Hale, with too many children or little experience. But “never underestimate dainty little ladies.”
This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for Sarah Hale and the inspiration her story gives me in a time when our nation finds itself again increasingly polarized and in need of some good ideas.