Tuesday 29th November 2022

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The Catholic Roots Of Thanksgiving

November 21, 2022 Frontpage No Comments


As Thanksgiving approached I began thinking about what to write for a good Thanksgiving column, especially after last week’s column about my father, baseball, and youthful times in Philadelphia.
As I wracked my brain for an idea, I remembered a friendship I developed as an aspiring novelist with another writer looking for her first publisher as well. She and I met in an online writers’ group and while we never actually met person to person, we did develop a friendship which lasted several years.
She was a teacher and interested in children’s books and told me about the book on which she was working about the first Thanksgiving in what became the United States — it was not in Jamestown in 1619 as we all believed, but in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla. So I did a little digging.
As I followed the corresponding links to her book, I found the story was much more involved than the place and the date: There was a real connection with the Catholic Church and the Eucharist which I had been unaware. For the first Thanksgiving was held in conjunction with a Thanksgiving Mass, Holy Communion, and a banquet to which the Spanish settlers in St. Augustine invited the local Tumucuan Indians to partake, which they did.
The Catholic connection to the Thanksgiving began when the priest, who was the chaplain to the Spanish Fleet, Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who also became the first parish priest in St. Augustine, planted a cross in the sand and celebrated the first parish Mass, September 8, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady who ultimately became the patroness of the Americas. Fr. Lopez then celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving.
The Spanish expedition leader, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, with some 800 Spanish settlers, joined the celebration with their invited guests.
What we inherited from the later Jamestown Thanksgiving was a New England dinner, including turkey — which was not on the menu in 1619. Since it was their first harvest in Jamestown they probably ate vegetables, including cabbage, beans, carrots, corn, fruits including blueberries, plums, grapes, and cranberries, as well as fish, shellfish, mussels in curd. Lobster, bass, clams, and oysters were probably on the menu, too.
The Spaniards, by contrast, probably feasted on cocido — a stew made with salted pork and garbanzo beans, hard sea biscuits, and red wine. If the Indians brought their own food, the feast would have included turkey, venison, gopher tortoise, and seafood such as catfish, drum, and mullet. Also included might have been squash, beans, and maize (corn).
Now I must admit, today’s turkey with all the fixings, pumpkin pie, and football sound like a better mix . . . but I digress.
The meal was shared by all but no one really knows what the natives thought of the Mass. However, Fr. Lopez, in his journal, said they imitated all that they had seen. Interesting how we should imitate Thanksgiving in our lives, Mass and Eucharist, followed by a celebratory meal. Remember, the word Eucharist comes from the Greek Eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” Thus, the Body of Christ is the true Thanksgiving meal, which we should understand and imitate at every Mass we attend.
Obviously there were other celebrations of thanks for safe arrivals by many Catholic explorers, notably from Spain and France during that time period, including Juan Ponce de León in 1513. The difference between these celebrations was that they were not at a permanent settlement, as was St. Augustine. St. Augustine was important notably because it was the first community act of Thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in the land, according to Michael Gannon, in his book, The Cross in the Sand.
There is one other connection with the Catholic Church and Thanksgiving lore: This one is from the Jamestown settlement in 1619. The Native American who mediated between the English Pilgrims and the Indians to establish what is thought of as the original Thanksgiving, Squanto, brings a new religious connotation to the event.
Squanto had been enslaved by the British but was freed by the Spanish Franciscans, who converted him to Catholicism. Thus, it was a Catholic convert who, in effect, was responsible for the Jamestown Thanksgiving celebration we think of every year at this time.
But why don’t we think of the Spanish Thanksgiving and Mass in 1565? Did we lose it in history? Well, in a word, yes.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the French, Spanish, and British vied against each other, seeking to expand their influence in the New World against the other nations. Unfortunately for the French and the Spanish, the British won the expansion battle and ultimately British history and traditions eclipsed the others, especially when the British began an annual reenactment of the “first” Thanksgiving in 1621. That reenactment survived to provide the historical genesis for the Thanksgiving tradition ultimately adopted by the soon-to-be independent United States, which inherited the traditions of the Mother Country.
Well, we’ve come a long way from the time of the first Spanish settlers and the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving customs and foods have changed, but the central idea has not: setting aside a day for giving thanks for what you have; a day to appreciate your family and friends, who, after all, provide for you the greatest joys in your life. And, of course, we should remember the Eucharistic roots of the day, especially as you decide whether or not to attend morning Mass that day.
So enjoy all the turkey and gravy and football. Have a peaceful and joy-filled day!
By the way, my writer friend and I both received book contracts. Her first was the children’s book America’s REAL First Thanksgiving, by Robyn Gioia. It’s still available on Amazon, paper bound and Kindle editions.
(You can reach Mike at: DeaconMike@q.com and listen to him every Thursday on Faith On Trial at https://iowacatholicradio.com/faith-on-trial/)

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