DO YOU KNOW who thought a national Thanksgiving celebration was important to bring the country together?
If you guessed Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, you would be correct. Ok, I’ll admit I didn’t know about Sarah until I read a piece by Tara Ross, who posts American History online daily.
Well, it turns out that Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was quite the woman. Widowed when she had five young children, she raised them and worked as an “Editress”(her term) of Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Sarah wrote about a splendid Thanksgiving homecoming and feast in her novel “Northwood” which was published in 1827. Here is part of the passage about it…
“The table, covered with a damask cloth, in whiteness, and nearly equaling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romilly’s own hand, was now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat for the occasion; and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family. The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being, at this season of year, plentifully supplied, and every one proud of displaying abundance and prosperity.
The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become a lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stalling, and finely covered in the froth of the basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.”
And if all that wasn’t enough…
“Plates of pickles, preserves and butter, and all necessaries for increasing seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread… A side table loaded with the preparations for the second course.”
At that time Thanksgiving was celebrated, but it wasn’t a national holiday. Sarah believed that in addition to being a day to give thanks and enjoy the company of family and friends around a table loaded with good things to eat, Thanksgiving could unite the country. She wrote about it in the magazine she edited and even wrote to President Abraham Lincoln!
The letter to Lincoln, written on September 28, 1863, urged him to declare a national Thanksgiving. On October 3, President Lincoln issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation. Would he have done so without Sarah’s encouragement? There is no way to be sure, but Sarah Josepha Buell Hale is credited by many with influencing his decision.
Now let’s take a look at actually cooking the Thanksgiving dinner which can be daunting. Tilly and Prue, the young ladies in Louisa May Alcott’s (yes-the author of “Little Women”) story “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” written in 1881, make cooking a modern day Thanksgiving dinner seem like popping a frozen dinner in the microwave. (Well maybe not quite…but pretty close!)
First I’ll give an intro to what the preface of the story is…if you haven’t read it, here’s a link to read it in full online https://americanliterature.com/author/louisa-may-alcott/short-story/an-old-fashioned-thanksgiving
The Bassetts are preparing for a grand Thanksgiving feast when news arrives that Granny is ailing. Mr. & Mrs. Bassett immediately leave to check on Granny, and the Bassett kids are left in charge. Older sister Tilly and Prue take on the challenge of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Let’s just say it’s not as easy as Tilly anticipated.
Thought sharing some of the passages from the story would be good Thanksgiving fun!
“Ma said, have what we liked, but she didn’t expect us to have a real Thanksgiving dinner, because she won’t be here to cook it, and we don’t know how,” began Prue, doubtfully.
“I can roast a turkey and make a pudding as well as anybody, I guess. The pies are all ready, and if we can’t boil vegetables and so on, we don’t deserve any dinner,” cried Tilly, burning to distinguish herself, and bound to enjoy to the utmost her brief authority.
“Yes, yes!” cried all the boys, “let’s have a dinner anyway; Ma won’t care, and the good victuals will spoil if they ain’t eaten right up.”
“Pa is coming to-night, so we won’t have dinner till late; that will be real genteel and give us plenty of time,” added Tilly, suddenly realizing the novelty of the task she had undertaken.
“Did you ever roast a turkey?” asked Roxy, with an air of deep interest.
“Should you darst to try?” said Rhody, in an awe-stricken tone.”
“You will see what I can do. Ma said I was to use my jedgment about things, and I’m going to. All you children have got to do is to keep out of the way, and let Prue and me work. Eph, I wish you’d put a fire in the best room, so the little ones can play in there. We shall want the settin’-room for the table, and I won’t have ’em pickin’ ’round when we get things fixed,” commanded Tilly, bound to make her short reign a brilliant one.
The following passage provides a peek at the differences in late 1800s Thanksgiving cooking…
“Prue obediently tugged away at the crane, with its black hooks, from which hung the iron tea-kettle and three-legged pot; then she settled the long spit in the grooves made for it in the tall andirons, and put the dripping-pan underneath, for in those days meat was roasted as it should be, not baked in ovens.”
Here’s a look at the Bassett’s table setting…
“It was not at all the sort of table we see now, but would look very plain and countrified to us, with its green-handled knives and two-pronged steel forks; its red-and-white china, and pewter platters, scoured till they shone, with mugs and spoons to match, and a brown jug for the cider. The cloth was coarse, but white as snow, and the little maids had seen the blue-eyed flax grow, out of which their mother wove the linen they had watched and watered while it bleached in the green meadow. They had no napkins and little silver; but the best tankard and Ma’s few wedding spoons were set forth in state. Nuts and apples at the corners gave an air, and the place of honor was left in the middle for the oranges yet to come.”
This from after the “bear” scare…(can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with an attempted bear break-in while cooking Thanksgiving dinner!)
“My sakes alive—the turkey is burnt one side, and the kettles have biled over so the pies I put to warm are all ashes!” scolded Tilly, as the flurry subsided and she remembered her dinner.
This when they sat down to Thanksgiving dinner when Pa came home with Ma and a bunch of family. Turns out Granny was fine!
They set forth their dinner, sure everything was perfect.
But when the eating began, which it did the moment wraps were off, then their pride got a fall; for the first person who tasted the stuffing (it was big Cousin Mose, and that made it harder to bear) nearly choked over the bitter morsel.
“Tilly Bassett, whatever made you put wormwood and catnip in your stuffin’?” demanded Ma, trying not to be severe, for all the rest were laughing, and Tilly looked ready to cry.
“I did it,” said Prue, nobly taking all the blame, which caused Pa to kiss her on the spot, and declare that it didn’t do a might of harm, for the turkey was all right.
“I never see onions cooked better. All the vegetables is well done, and the dinner a credit to you, my dears,” declared Aunt Cinthy, with her mouth full of the fragrant vegetable she praised.
The pudding was an utter failure, in spite of the blazing brandy in which it lay—as hard and heavy as one of the stone balls on Squire Dunkin’s great gate. It was speedily whisked out of sight, and all fell upon the pies, which were perfect.
Tilly and Prue soon found the humor in some of the failings of their Thanksgiving dinner endeavor, and…
When the jingle of the last bell had died away, Mr. Bassett said soberly, as they stood together on the hearth: “Children, we have special cause to be thankful that the sorrow we expected was changed into joy, so we’ll read a chapter ‘fore we go to bed, and give thanks where thanks is due.”
Then Tilly set out the light-stand with the big Bible on it, and a candle on each side, and all sat quietly in the fire-light, smiling as they listened with happy hearts to the sweet old words that fit all times and seasons so beautifully.
Yes, giving thanks and sharing a feast together is uniting. Sarah Josepha Buell Hale had it right when she concluded an editorial about her hopes for a national Thanksgiving with “We are already spread and mingled over the Union. Each year, by bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations . . . . How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law? and who is a better fellow than our wife’s uncle from St. Louis? . . . Wherever we may be, it is a good and pleasant thing to feel that we look at the same stars, pray to the same God, and hold high festival of gratitude at the same hours throughout the broad land that He has so blessed!”
Here’s a special Thank-you to Tara Ross, who posts American history nuggets daily, and brought Sarah Josepha Buell Hale’s role as “The Mother of Thanksgiving” to my newsfeed.
Click Tara Ross for the link to Tara Ross’s Page.
Diana Erbio is a freelance writer and author of “Coming to America: A Girl Struggles to Find her Way in a New World”. Visit her on Facebook and read her blog series “Statues: The People They Salute” .