The Mother of Thanksgiving

 Happy Thanksgiving from


Margaret Brownley


This year during Thanksgiving dinner let us all give a toast to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who launched a seventeen-year crusade to make “Thanksgiving a national festival similar to the Fourth of July.” 

The original Thanksgiving took place in 1621 but it wasn’t until the Civil War in 1863 that Mrs. Hale efforts paid off.  A firm believer that sitting down to dinner as a nation would unify the north and the south, she wrote a letter to President Lincoln dated September 28, 1963 read in part:

“Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”

 The letter must have hit a nerve because on October 3rd President Lincoln issued a national Thanksgiving proclamation, setting aside the last Thursday in November for the occasion.

Each year, following that first “official” Thanksgiving,  a presidential  proclamation was issued for the celebration of the holiday on the fourth Thursday of the month. President Franklin Roosevelt upset the apple cart when he declared that Thanksgiving would “hereafter be held on the third Thursday in November.”  This pleased merchants as it allowed more shopping days for Christmas, but riled Republicans and football coaches, who accused the president of messing with a sacred tradition and, heaven forbid, football schedules.  

For two years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different days, depending on political affiliations, or the state you lived in.  Despite the inconvenience, there was an upside. If you didn’t want to have dinner with, say, Uncle Herbert, a democrat, all you had to do was become a republican or move to a different state.    

Finally, in 1941 Congress officially declared that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of November.  This pleased football coaches, but didn’t do much for battling family members who now had to celebrate Thanksgiving  together.


Speaking of Mrs. Hale, anyone brave enough to try out her recipe for Thanksgiving Turkey?


Prepare a stuffing of pork sausage meat, one beaten egg, and a few crumbs of bread; or, if sausages are to be served with the turkey, stuffing as for fillet of veal; in either, a little shred shalot is an improvement. Stuff the bird under the breast; dredge it with flour, and put it down to a clear brisk fire; at a moderate distance the first half-hour but afterwards nearer.

Baste with butter; and when the turkey is plumped up, and the steam draws towards the fire, it will be nearly done; then dredge it lightly with flour, and baste it with a little more butter, first melted in the basting-ladle. Serve with gravy in the dish, and bread sauce in a tureen. It may be garnished with sausages, or with fried forcemeat, if veal-stuffing be used. Sometimes the gizzard and liver are dipped into the yolk of an egg, sprinkled with salt and cayenne, and then put under the pinions, before the bird is put to the fire. Chestnuts, stewed in gravy, are likewise eaten with turkey. A very large turkey will require three hours’ roasting; one of eight or ten pounds, two hours; and a small one, an hour and a half.

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26 thoughts on “The Mother of Thanksgiving”

  1. Wow, I didn’t realize Thanksgiving was moved around so much!

    We always had trouble with my mom’s birthday which would fall on Thanksgiving every once in a while depending. As kids we assumed we always celebrated her birthday on the holiday so we never could remember the actual date!

    Peace and Happy Turkey Day, Julie

  2. Julie,
    I can see why this would pose a problem. I once had friend born on Easter Day, which meant that sometimes we celebrated her birthday in March, and sometimes we celebrated it in April.

    Happy turkey day, back!

  3. Thanks for the fun info, Margaret. Lots of stuff I didn’t know. Always thought Thanksgiving had been celebrated since the pilgrims. My cute grandson has a birthday Nov. 27 – he’ll have lots of same-day celebrations in his life but not this year, when he’ll turn sweet 16.
    And my idea of a Thanksgiving Turkey is one you stuff with whatever, put in one of those cooking bags and stick it in the oven till the little timer pops.

  4. Great post, Margaret. I, too, thought the tradition of thanksgiving had lingered since the pilgrims. How fun to learn that a determined woman with a desire to unite our country was the impetus behind the national holiday. A big thanks to Mrs. Hale and to you for sharing her story with us!

  5. Elizabeth,
    Thank you for stopping by. Thanksgiving wasn’t really celebrated as we know it during the 18th century. It was more of a military holiday of prayer and fasting. George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving day while he was in office, but it wasn’t until the War of 1812 that another Thanksgiving day was celebrated. Some Southern states refused to acknowledge Thanksgiving claiming it was Puritanic Bigotry. Throughout most of the 19th century, Thanksgiving traditions varied from region to region. Parades and costume parties were the norm, not feasts.

  6. Karen, I, too, through Thanksgiving was a yearly event following the pilgrims. It was surprising to also discover that Thanksgiving wasn’t always celebrated in the fall. Thank you for stopping by.

  7. Hi Margaret, I love Thanksgiving. Dinner has always been so very easy to fix. I even cooked a 30# one in a wood stove one time! When I took it out I promptly dropped it on the floor and it skidded across the linoleum. Made a terrible grease skid mark.
    Later, living in a Native American household, this day would start out as a grumble, but then turned into one like any other household. Football, laughing, remembering and a deep pit outside so the men would take all the credit for cooking the turkey.
    Have a great day.

  8. I just love old writing like that recipe, Margaret. I find it so charming.

    when the steam draws toward the fire? Isn’t that an odd way to describe how to tell it’s done? I wonder what it means? Simple that the turkey is steaming hot?

    And I love the word Editress. I’ve never heard it before, I don’t think. Something tells me this woman–for all her attention to Ladies and Style and Food and Thanksgiving–was a force to be reckoned with.

  9. It took me YEARS to work up the nerve to make a turkey. When I finally did? So simple. I wonder what my problem was? What was my fear rooted in?

    For heaven’s sake, you slap it in a pan, stick it in the oven and wait for that little red deal to pop out.

    No Big Deal. Not the way I do it anyway.

  10. Uh…Mary, aren’t you forgetting something? Like removing the little packet of gizzards stuffed inside? This, of course, is what I forgot to do with my first turkey years ago as a new bride. How come no one ever told me to do that?

  11. I never knew the day was changed so much. “or with fried forcemeat” – is that the veal? I much prefer my bread stuffing lol. My birthday is the end of the month so normally I get my candles put in a pumpkin pie lol.

  12. My birthday falls close to or on Thanksgiving every several years. So I get pumpkin cheesecake as a birthday cake.

    I knew Thanksgiving bounced around some, but didn’t know why.

  13. I, too, didn’t know about the giblet packet in
    my first turkey! Mary, I’ve relied on the red
    pop-up button for years, too. Now this year I
    read something about some turkeys not cooking
    long enough through relying on that button. We
    should use a thermometer inserted in the turkey
    thigh according to that article. Guess I’ll have
    to purchase one!! “Happy Thanksgiving” to all !!

    Pat Cochran

  14. very interesting about turkey day being moved

    the recipe-
    oh dear god
    i won’t be making that one…though it
    doesn’t seem i’d be capable with those directions anyhow 🙂

  15. I’ve never had any turkey disasters, though having said that, I’ll probably drop it on the floor or something this year. Like Mary, I was shaking in my shoes at the prospect of cooking my first bird after several years of either going to my mom’s or my mother-in-law’s for Thanksgiving dinner. Like her, it turned out not to be the huge undertaking I thought it would.

    Being a Nebraskan, football is as much a part of my Thanksgiving as mashed potatoes & gravy. 🙂 I not only remember where I watched the 1971 NU-OU game, I even remember my outfit. (Mom wouldn’t let me wear my Big Red gear to dinner at her sister’s house.)

  16. Ann, speaking of football, I came across this gem from Erma Bombeck: “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence.”

  17. Enjoyable post as usual.
    I am interested in Mrs. Hale’s turkey recipe. By this time, I am sure most people were cooking with wood stoves not by open fires. It is odd that the directions are for an open fire. I wouldn’t think many people in town would be cooking a holiday meal that way. When using a wood stove, you do vary the fire, depending on what you are cooking. I am curious now to see how well this would work. She doesn’t say what type of pan to use. Covered roaster? Large cast iron pan? I just may try it, but not this Thanksgiving. Maybe with a small turkey later. The cooking times don’t seems long enough. Should be fun. My husband will think I’m nuts.

    Hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

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