Sarah Josepha Hale: The Activist Who Gave Us Thanksgiving

By painted by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As school children, most of us were taught the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621. However, what happened to the holiday in the subsequent years is a story often left untold. Following the first Thanksgiving in 1621, celebrations of Thanksgiving were irregular and disunited. Days of celebration and thanksgiving for the harvest occurred in the fall throughout the colonies, taking place anytime from late September through early December. Thanksgiving was most commonly observed in the New England colonies of Pilgrim stock, and less so in the south.

It took almost 250 more years for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday fixed on a specific day (then the last Thursday of November, now the fourth Thursday of November). Without the advocacy of writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Thanksgiving may well have slipped silently into the past as so many of our seasonal holidays have.

Sarah Josepha Hale was an autodidactic New Hampshire mother and writer. She wrote a much celebrated novel about slavery, published in 1827, after which she was offered the editorship of a women’s magazine, The Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette. She was the first female editor of a magazine in the U.S. From her post as editor of this highly successful magazine, she petitioned her national audience in support of many civil, social, and patriotic causes, including women’s education and the establishment of a national Thanksgiving.

Starting in 1846, she began her advocacy work toward making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Over the next 17 years, she would write thousands of letters, petition five different U.S. presidents, and publish numerous articles in her magazine all in support of creating a national holiday of Thanksgiving.  Hale hoped that the establishment of a shared national day of Thanksgiving might prevent the outbreak of war between the increasingly fractious North and South. “There is a deep moral influence in the periodical seasons of rejoicing,” she wrote, “in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”

Hale finally found an ally in President Lincoln. She wrote him many letters and eventually visited him in person at the White House. Three months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln ordered a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. In his proclamation, Lincoln wrote:

And I recommend to them, that while offering up the ascriptions due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do so with humble penitence…commend to His tender care those who have become widows, orphans, or mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, and Union.

Although possibly influenced by Hale, Lincoln’s motivations for the establishment of a national Thanksgiving were likely complex. Godfrey Hodgson, author of A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving, contends that the proclamation was, “…probably motivated by the need to maintain the civilian morale of a Union whose ultimate victory might now be inevitable, but where the costs and travails of the war were bitterly discouraging. Lincoln was always acutely aware of the connection between civilian morale and military victory in a great citizen army, and he was particularly sensitive to the moral sensibilities of the New England Christian intelligentsia and to that New England Protestant tradition from which, after all, the nation owed Thanksgiving in the first place. The decision to make Thanksgiving a national holiday illustrates the two sides of Lincoln’s genius: the moral prophet and the shrewd politician.” Whatever the motivation behind Lincoln’s proclamation, Hale’s influence on the President, local governments, and everyday Americans was instrumental in forging the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving. And that is something we can all be thankful for.

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The Sad and True Story of the American Chestnut

An American chestnut (Castanea dentata)
By United States Forest Service [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chestnuts have a long association with the holiday season. Whether roasted on an open fire (do you hear Nat King Cole singing?) or used in desserts, they are one of the flavors that many associate with the winter holidays. However, in America, the now humble chestnut once meant much more. At the turn of the century, the American chestnut was one of the most populous and vital trees in the country. Its range stretched north-south from Maine to Georgia and east-west from the coast to Illinois and Arkansas. An estimated four billion chestnut trees stood within this expanse, making up a quarter of all hardwood trees. In her book The American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Susan Frienkel writes, “Legend has it that a squirrel could travel the chestnut canopy from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground. Along the way it would pass over at least 1,904 places with ‘chestnut’ in their names.” The American chestnut was essential to the lives and livelihood of many in this range, providing them with food, fodder, and shelter. Chestnuts were also a crucial part of the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for wildlife. However, in a single generation this towering and useful tree was almost completely annihilated.

In 1904, chestnut blight was found on some imported chestnut trees on Long Island, New York. The blight quickly spread to the American chestnuts, which had no resistance whatsoever. The blight spread at a rampant pace throughout the huge chestnut population, killing each tree it came in contact with. Within 25 years, billions of trees had been killed; within 50 years, the American chestnut was on the brink of extinction. Only a handful of isolated trees remained alive, out of an initial population of four billion. Frienkel calls the chestnut blight, “…one of the worst blows to the continent’s ecosystem since the Ice Age.”

Campaigns to restore the American chestnut have been underway since the 1930s. Efforts are now focused on crossbreeding the American chestnut with other chestnut species that are more resistant to the blight. Restoration efforts have met with limited success. Within a few years new saplings succumb to the same blight that afflicted their long dead ancestors. Some older secluded American chestnuts still live scattered throughout the country and number of hybrid saplings are currently in the New York Botanical Gardens.

The chestnuts we eat in the United States today are almost entirely imported, mostly from Sicily. Chestnuts can be eaten raw or roasted. If roasting, score the flat side of the chestnut using the tip of a knife. If not scored the chestnut will explode like popcorn. Chestnuts, being substantially larger than popcorn kernels, are not things you want flying like arboreal missiles in your home or oven. You can roast over a fire or in the oven at 400 degrees, for approximately 20 minutes. Peel while still warm and enjoy.

St. Clement’s Day: Explosions Upon the Anvil and Singing for Treats

November 23 marks both the traditional first day of winter (now recognized as the twenty-first of December) and the feast of St. Clement. St. Clement is the patron saint of blacksmiths. Why Clement has this honor is a matter of some disagreement. Some legends claim he was martyred by having an anchor tied around his neck and cast into the sea, thus becoming to the patron saint of anchor-smiths. Other legends claim he was the first man to refine iron from ore. His feast day may also have melded with that of Wayland the Smith of Norse mythology.

Blacksmiths and their apprentices typically took this day as a holiday. The evening of “Old Clem’s Day” would be marked by the tradition of “firing the anvil”, in which gunpowder would be packed into a small hole in an anvil; the smith would then hit the anvil with his hammer, causing a small explosion. Smiths would also dress up as “Old Clem” donning a great coat, mask, white beard, and wig. Smiths would then go door to door, carrying an iron pot, and petitioning their neighbors to fund their feast day.

Eventually, children took charge of this celebration, going out “clemencing” on November 23. Children would go door-to-door begging for gifts and food, singing chants all the while. Such as:

Clemany! Clemany! Clemany mine!
A good red apple and a pint of wine,
Some of your mutton and some of your veal,
If it is good, pray give me a deal;
If it is not, pray give me some salt.
Butler, butler, fill your bowl;
If thou fill’st it of the best,
The Lord’ll send your soul to rest;
If thou fill’st it of the small,
Down goes butler bowl and all…

or (I love this one):

Pray, good mistress, send to me
one for Peter, one for Paul,
one for him who made us all;
Apple, pear, plum, or cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry;
A bouncing buck and a velvet chair,
Clement comes but once a year;
off with the pot and on with the pan,
A good red apple and I’ll be gone.

These Old Clem songs even make an appearance in Dicken’s Great Expectations. When asked to sing a song for Miss Havisham, Pip sings a song he has heard Old Joe sing to the rhythm of beating upon the iron, “…hammer boys round – Old Clem! With a thump and a sound – Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem! Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem! Roaring dryer, soaring higher, Old Clem!”

It seems a rather fun holiday to me! Maybe I’ll take the kids out ‘clemencing’ this evening!

By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reconnecting to the Rhythm of the Year

Modern life has created a rift between humans and nature as has never existed in the past. We don’t follow prey or water with the seasons as our nomadic ancestors did. Few of us still know the cycle of sowing, weeding, and harvesting in any but the most abstract terms. We no longer look to the skies to make judgments about what the weather holds in store; rather, we look to our phones. Our lives have become deeply disconnected from the rhythm of the year, the pattern of the seasons, and the wealth and warmth of our human heritage.

I will be writing here on this new blog, Maple Tree Almanac, as part of a goal to reconnect with the turning of the year and welcome any readers to join me on this journey. Posts will explore the intersection of many of my interests, including: anthropology, history, weather, ecology, holidays, literature, food, and astronomy. Each post will relate to the season, month, date, or particular day in which it appears. In the upcoming weeks of November, I will be writing about St. Clement’s Day (which traditionally marked the first day of winter), late autumn droving, dressing for cold weather, and Thanksgiving history. New posts will appear in the early a.m., so information particularly relevant to specific days (holidays, for example) should be available for the whole day and to all readers.

Welcome to Maple Tree Almanac. I hope you will join me in my journey to reconnect with the rhythm of the year.