How a Women’s Magazine Fortified the Myth of Thanksgiving and Its Absurd Menu

“He who loves not his country, can love nothing.” This quote from Lord Byron is how Sarah J. Hale, perhaps known more in the present for penning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” than being the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” commences Northwood: A Tale of New England, Vol. 1. Lord Byron’s words are a strong indication of just how much Hale was responsible for the white-washing of Thanksgiving under the guise of “patriotism.” For it is a “holiday” tied inextricably to that false concept.

Hale spent a large portion of her life rallying to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, bending the ear of presidents ranging from Taylor to Buchanan. But it was Lincoln who finally “heard” her, seeing it as an opportunity to bring a divided America together during the Civil War. And blancs love nothing more if not uniting over a shared non-blanc “enemy.” With Black people “off limits” (but not really) for finding new ways to oppress for a time, eyes turned to creating the reality-suppressing myth that would sustain Thanksgiving for centuries to come by basically writing off Native Americans as hapless twits eager to share in a rather gross menu (apart from the cranberries, the one “authentic” item, apart from corn, still used today for the “classic” Thanksgiving spread). 

At the time of her Thanksgiving crusade, Hale was an editor and writer for the widely circulated and influential Godey’s Ladies Book. Having already written about her interpretation of “the Thanksgiving meal” in the aforementioned Northwood, Hale had all the material she needed to incorporate into the magazine for establishing the white version of the “traditional” Thanksgiving meal. One that—apart from but a few food groups—really had no bearing on what might have actually been shared between the Wampanoag Tribe and the pilgrims who had come to roost in Plymouth. Least of all turkey, a bird that would have been too wild and irascible to pin down in the seventeenth century. More likely, it was instead fish that was served as an entrée. Nonetheless, Hale seemed to think it was essential to spin the yarn, “…the roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing.”

Hale also seemed unconcerned that “pie” wouldn’t have been an option for the Wampanoag and pilgrims, what with flour not exactly being readily available. No matter. Hale had propaganda to disseminate, and that included the description of how “the celebrated pumpkin pie… occupied the most distinguished niche” of the table and is to be treated as “an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.” And so it has remained, even as part of a “Confederate” Thanksgiving. Because, again, this was all a bid to create a sense of unity among white Americans in the throes of a Civil War that seemed to presage the U.S.’ future in moments like the January 6th attempt at an insurrection. 

But Hale was not without her own editorial machinations in beefing (turkeying?) up the so-called importance of Thanksgiving. Being a major influencer (back when that word did not pertain to social media) over women’s viewpoints and actions, she saw Thanksgiving as an opportunity to play up the domestic angle. To inform women of how they could be the ideal hausfrau (an unpaid role mostly consisting of cooking, cleaning and assuring her husband he’s a god) as part of a greater effort to perpetuate the new “American” ideals that would take a population of colonizers into the next century and then some. 

It was, in fact, the twentieth century that took Hale’s cuisine lore to more absurd heights with the introduction of the kind of technology Americans have come to expect as a “natural” part of their processed foods. Hence, canned cranberries, boxed mashed potatoes, frozen turkey, Sara Lee pie. In essence, there’s no shortage of ersatz food to complement an already ersatz holiday. One that, of all things, was bolstered by a “little woman’s” publication. 

Indeed, at a time when women’s magazines had the most clout, it’s a shame all that power was used to perpetuate an ultimately patriarchal message. This includes the lie of Thanksgiving, painting “Indians” as a people only too happy to displace themselves for the sake of the “superior” white man. As a tribe that sat down with these European colonizers out of “sheer kindness,” not because they had their own political aims in allying with them. Convinced that, in their weakened state after enduring an epidemic (brought by European settlers) which wiped out a large portion of their tribe, they would be stronger against their rivals, the Narragansett, with this “coalition.” Little did they know, their story would be repurposed into such oblivion that all their suffering and exploitation would be reduced to a grotesque menu that has no real relevance to the “first Thanksgiving” at all. 

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