Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with prodding the government to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

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Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with prodding the government to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

I’m guessing most people have never heard of her, or if they have, it’s because she also wrote a nursery rhyme everyone knows, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Hale is one of those innumerable people who push and prod and shape America. They aren’t all presidents or generals or powerful industrialists. Some are anonymous and some, like Hale, make a name for themselves then are forgotten as time moves on.

They are people we should remember in times when circumstances seem beyond our influence. Like now.

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Most of us are frustrated with government, with the economic system and a sense that we have no say.

We vote for people to make the changes we want only to see them swallowed up by a dysfunctional system, where they do someone’s bidding, but not ours.

Popular disgruntlement can be seen in the approval rating for Congress, which has hovered around 13 percent or the approval rating for the president, which is about 43 percent. It’s also evident in the Occupy movement.

But I don’t want to give you indigestion on Thanksgiving Day. That’s why I turn to Hale. People like her are an antidote to feelings of helplessness.

Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788 and she broke barriers as a woman.

She was one of the first American women to publish a novel. She was the editor of Ladies’ Magazine and later of the pioneering women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book when the two merged, and she was a lifelong advocate for equal education for women. She also helped start Vassar College.

Hale launched her public career while raising five children alone, her husband having died after 11 years of marriage.

She was a prolific and influential writer and editor, but today we should thank her for this holiday.

As I said, she became quite prominent in her time, but even so, it took her decades of campaigning to get the holiday accepted.

We usually look back to a mythologized story of Plymouth Plantation for the origins of the observance, but the meaning we invest in the celebration took generations to develop.

Harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving were common in the colonies and in the early years of the country.

Some states observed a day to give thanks, and presidents occasionally would proclaim a national day of thanksgiving, but the holiday as we know it began with Hale.

She published articles and wrote letters to five presidents before Abraham Lincoln heeded her pleas and proclaimed the annual national holiday in 1863.

This day to give thanks was born amid one of the country’s bleakest trials. An attitude of gratitude is most needed when the feeling is most difficult to come by, and it might help us out today. True gratitude requires a sense of humility, a recognition that none of us thrives alone.

But humility is frequently in conflict with the American devotion to individualism.

The holiday is centered on family and friends and each person’s gratitude for what someone else has done for him. But when Lincoln proclaimed the holiday, he was thinking of the need for a broader kind of thanksgiving, a community beyond the table in my house or yours. He encouraged an appreciation of our blessings that would support national healing.

We need that larger interpretation now, a renewed allegiance to our common home and the people in it. We will need more of that attitude to get past our present problems.

The persistence Hale showed in securing the holiday is the kind of dedication we need to revive the deepest meanings of it.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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