Thanksgiving Day: What Every Catholic Should Know...
Around Thanksgiving Day, we often think of the Puritans at Plymouth (later labeled “Pilgrims”). Many will even say theirs was the first Thanksgiving feast in what is now the United States. Although many say this, they are wrong. It is difficult to determine the exact first Thanksgiving event by settlers, but the options usually come down to Catholic groups, not the Puritans. The reason for this historical error is that we often think of the Puritans and English Anglicans establishing settlements, and we forget that Catholics from Spain were the first Europeans to establish settlements in what would become the USA. Some hold that the first Thanksgiving occurred in Saint Augustine, Florida or by another Catholic group in southern Texas. There are even some that argue that French Calvinists celebrated the first American Thanksgiving. What is clear is that the English Puritans were not the first, and Catholic Thanksgiving events have a long history in the United States. Even for Plymouth’s Thanksgiving there is a Catholic hero in the mix; the Native American Squanto was Catholic.
Just as Catholics played an important part in the history of the American Thanksgiving, we
should be sure to live out our Catholic Faith in our Thanksgiving celebrations today. What matters most is not who celebrated the first Thanksgiving or the religions of the individual groups. What matters most is that Thanksgiving was intended to be a day to give thanks to the Creator.
Set days to give thanks in the later colonies and the early years of the country were religious events to give thanks to God. Thanksgiving Day was intended to be oriented toward God. You cannot be thankful without being thankful toward someone. When planning out your celebration, be sure to slow down and offer a prayer of thanks to the Author of life. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Later in the meal when going around the table and sharing what you are thankful for, avoid asking “What are you thankful for?” Ask instead, “What are you thankful to God for?”
Every Mass is a Thanksgiving event! Our Lord gave us the gift of the Holy Eucharist. The word “Eucharist” means “thanks” or “thanksgiving” (CCC 1360). “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:54-56). What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving Day than to begin the day with Mass, to receive the Sacrament of Thanksgiving/Eucharist, and to give thanks to God surrounded by our Christian brothers and sisters?
In many of the earliest Thanksgiving celebrations, we saw settlements or colonies expanding their relationships during a meal. Who is someone new you could invite to share in the feast? Is there someone you know that might go without food or companionship? Are there those in your community you have never had over for a meal? (like your parish priest you saw that morning for Thanksgiving Mass!) Or is there someone you need to forgive and break bread with? If you are hosting, set an extra spot at the table this year for someone new.
Thanksgiving cannot be separated from its religious meaning, nor is it easily separated from Catholicism. Let us celebrate Thanksgiving Day in a way that expresses in word and action our love for God and our love for our neighbor.