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Thanksgiving Day proclamation: Its curious link to 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'

As presidential messages go, the traditional Thanksgiving Day proclamation is richer than most in oddball trivia. Here are some fun facts about its genesis. 

By Dave CookStaff writer / November 23, 2011



Washington

Who’d have thought that the presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamation has links to “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? 

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Yes, American history is rife with such oddball trivia – and, as proclamations go, the Thanksgiving Day message is richer than most in that vein.

Generally, presidential proclamations are standard fare, issued to satisfy constituent groups. This year alone President Obama has issued 122 proclamations, according to Mark Knoller, CBS Radio White House correspondent, who keeps statistics on presidential actions. Subjects have ranged from National Forest Products Week to Leif Erikson Day (though we’re not sure who, exactly, is the constituency for that last one).

But these run-of-the-mill proclamations lack the historical resonance of the Thanksgiving Day proclamation. The first one, after all, came from none other than George Washington in 1789. Still, the idea of a single day set aside nationwide for Thanksgiving did not catch on until almost 75 years later – and that’s where “Mary Had a Little Lamb” comes in. 

Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote the famous nursery rhyme, had lobbied for decades for a Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated nationwide on a specific day. She persuaded President Abraham Lincoln that such a celebration could help unify a nation fractured by the Civil War. Lincoln’s proclamation, dated Oct. 3, 1863, established the last Thursday in November as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

The task of drafting the proclamation falls to the president’s speechwriting staff – and it can be a challenging assignment. James Humes, a speechwriter for several Republican presidents, once complained, “You try sometime writing the presidential Thanksgiving Day message and not sounding trite!”

What the proclamation omits also can be troublesome. In 2009, conservatives criticized Mr. Obama because the proclamation mentioned God only when it quoted George Washington. 

Last year, Obama’s message said: “We lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings....” This year, it says, "... we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives."

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