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Nonfiction:  The Philadelphia Touch

OPED: Philadelphia Inquirer
Writing Lesson: How to adapt simple research into an oped.

In "The Philadelphia Spirit Behind Thanksgiving", there were two tie-ins.  It was submitted several weeks before Thanksgiving for the holiday tie-in.  The other tie-in was the local angle--Philadelphia--which was emphasized.  The piece is basic research about Sarah Josepha Hale and her efforts to establish a national day of Thanksgiving. To this were added strong words at the beginning and end to focus on the locally-based magazine and also on Hale's determination, stressing her as an early feminist. 

Note that in the opening paragraph and in the closing one, there are "circle-backs" to form unity; specifically, these are the words "ardent" and "spirited" in referring to Hale, and the reiteration of her efforts being conducted via a "Philadelphia-based" magazine.  (This might also appear as an essay rather than an oped.)
 

 

The Philadelphia Spirit Behind Thanksgiving

by Gloria T. Delamar

Obscured amidst the traditional celebrations of Thanksgiving is the fact that the official adoption of the observance was instigated by the ardent efforts of an early feminist - through the medium of a Philadelphia-based lady's magazine.  When Sarah Josepha Hale took up the cause in her Godey's Lady's Book, she reached so many readers, and wrote so eloquently, that her crusade finally moved President Abraham Lincoln to action.

Before then, primarily unofficial celebrations had taken place.  The Pilgrims held a "Thanks-Giving" feast in 1621 that lasted three days. For the next century and a half,  the celebration occurred only sporadically.  It wasn't until 1789 that the new president, George Washington, issued the first national proclamation of a "Thanksgiving."  It took him until 1795 to repeat the proclamation.   Following presidents, including the Adamses, Jefferson, and Pennsylvania's Buchanan, as well as numerous state governments, viewed the concept as being a governmental interference with religion.

Mrs. Hale, however, was a forceful and determined woman.  She had first taken up the crusade for a national thanksgiving observance in 1827 as editor of Boston's Ladies' Magazine.  That same year, she published Northwood, the first novel ever to mention slavery, her stance being one of sympathy for the concerns of both the North and the South.   In Northwood, she stated, "We have too few holidays.  Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national festival and observed by all people." 

Each November, she wrote articles advocating the observance of family gatherings and feasts.  She printed her favorite mouth-watering recipes, gave directions for autumn table decorations, and even suggested games, songs, and recitations that would make the day a memorable family gathering as well as a national observance.  In addition to recognition as the author of poems for children, including "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Sarah Hale became known for her common sense and for her stand on many social causes.  She attracted the attention of Philadelphia publisher, Louis Godey, who bought Ladies Magazine so he could merge it with his Godey's Lady's Book and bring the widowed Mrs. Hale to Philadelphia in 1841 to take over the helm as editor. 

As Mrs. Hale's influence grew, she became more assertive in her crusade for an official thanksgiving date.  She wrote to the governors of every state and territory, to leading businessmen, industrialists, and editors, to Congressmen, and for sixteen years straight, to the Presidents in office.  (Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln.)

Her Godey's Lady's Book editorials, urging a national thanksgiving observance, started early in the year and continued to November.  By 1851, all but two states were having some kind of thanksgiving observance.  She did not hesitate to list the names of all the governors who issued thanksgiving proclamations, and in 1852 took the governors of Virginia and Vermont to task, urging that all the states and territories be united in the festival and asking for the fourth Thursday of November as a day with "twenty-three millions of people sitting down, as it were, to a feast of joy and thankfulness."  She continued to print suitable menus for the celebration of the feast.

After the battle of Gettysburg, with renewed hopes of the end of the Civil War, she wrote her third letter to Abraham Lincoln.  Her editorials had gained wide-spread acceptance among citizens for a national observance of thanksgiving. When her letter reached him this time, her eloquence had its effect.  Two days before the official proclamation, she was informed by Secretary of State, William Seward, that Lincoln was giving her suggestion consideration.

On October 3, 1863, while the country was suffering the separations of the Civil War, President Lincoln was moved to declare the fourth Thursday of November  "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." 

In 1939 and 1940, merchants convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the celebration up to the third Thursday of November to establish a longer between-holiday time for Christmas shopping.  But national sentiment reigned and the observance was returned to the day first suggested by George Washington and advocated by Sarah Josepha Hale over a 36-year crusade - the fourth Thursday of November. 

Obsessive determination doesn't always come to fruition--but if the cause is something that strikes the emotions--like Mother's and Father's Days--Thanksgiving--and their ilk--championing observances that eschew religious and political lines can create universal celebrations that bind us together, as families and as a nation.

     Thanks to a spirited lady, and the influence of a Philadelphia-published magazine, for almost a century and a half now, Americans have officially taken time to be thankful for their blessings, and have had a grand and glorious excuse to stuff themselves with turkey, potatoes, maize (corn, if you will,) yams, creamed onions, relishes, cranberries, mince pies, pumpkin pies, and as if it were necessary, more savory stuffing.

- copyright  © 1994, 2002 Gloria T. Delamar 

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