We have been conditioned as Americans to consider Thanksgiving from one single historical perspective based upon the New England Thanksgiving event. Certainly, our commemoration and celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday the 4th Thursday of every November is a recalling of a very historical New England event at our nation’s origin that took place between Native Americans and European pilgrims. So too it is also a day tinged with the sacred; it is a laudable and noble celebration to give thanks for all the goodness and blessings bestowed upon the United States of America.
A Catholic Historical Perspective of Thanksgiving
However, for many of us, school textbooks excluded a Catholic historical perspective that reveals to us an American Thanksgiving event that predates the Puritan event celebrated in Massachusetts. Of course, it is important to likewise note that even in this Puritan event (and remember the Puritans were quite Anti-Catholic and this is probably an understatement) that almost every American schoolchild is comfortably familiar with from an early age, there was a strong Catholic presence in the person of the famous Indian Squanto, a Catholic convert who saved by Spanish Franciscans, was at first enslaved by the English. Furthermore, a very Catholic thanksgiving event that precedes by a number of decades the Massachusetts event can leave us wondering how so many are so unaware of this momentous occasion, Catholic or not; After all, it is part of the history of the settlement of the Americas.
The date was September 8th, 1565, and the location St. Augustine, Florida, upon the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here was witnessed a Catholic Mass in which Spanish settlers and Native Americans convened together to celebrate the sacred mysteries and also join together for a feast. Hundreds were present at this Mass, including the Timucuan Indians. In fact, yet another Thanksgiving, also involving a Catholic Mass and a feast was celebrated in Texas in 1589. So it seems that two historically significantly thanksgivings preceded the Puritan Massachusetts event.
The connection between the Mass and the concept and act of thanksgiving is a very intimate one, though we can tragically overlook that fact. The Eucharist, the center of our Faith and high point and the pinnacle of the Mass is the real presence of Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Catholics recognize and know that the Eucharist is the greatest presence and union with Christ possible on Earth. The Mass itself is the highest form of thanksgiving to our Lord and Creator on Earth. In fact, the very word Eucharist means “thanksgiving”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the Eucharist is “…an action of thanksgiving to God.” Significantly, the Church in America has long seen an intimate connection between America’s national holiday of Thanksgiving and the Mass. Many Catholic Churches across the nation have special Thanksgiving morning masses. I have found over the years that outside of the high holy days of the Church’s liturgical calendar, Thanksgiving morning Masses have likewise been a powerfully moving, poignant experience to praise God as American Catholics.
Participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I perceive, magnifies my appreciation of Thanksgiving Day, and why shouldn’t it? At Mass we give thanks to God, uniting ourselves to Christ Jesus and all the angels and saints in a magnificent way, thanking him for creating us, for dying on the Cross for us and rising that we might have life in abundance by sharing in his divine life that he as the God-Man offers to us, redeeming us as the God-Man. The Mass magnifies our appreciation of every day, and in a special way, Thanksgiving Day takes on an even deeper, richer meaning for Catholics through the Mass. An historical appreciation of the wonderful event of the Catholic Mass that witnessed Native Americans and Spanish pilgrims alike come together to celebrate God’s goodness and intimate presence in our lives that wonderful Florida day in 1589 deepens our appreciation of the powerful presence of the Catholic Faith in America from its colonization and can strengthen the harmonization of our love of God and Nation as Catholics.
Spanish Catholics in Florida
As a Catholic, I have peacefully and even joyfully reconciled the “competing” thanksgiving of the Puritans in Massachusetts and the Spanish Catholics in Florida, both including an event of thanksgiving and friendship with the Native Americans. The Thanksgiving event in Massachusetts was extremely significant and of great importance to American history. Yet I realize now that this was neither the first nor the most powerful and grace-filled Thanksgiving event on American soil, a historical fact that I do wish I had known and appreciated much sooner. Such an event should be widely known and taught to us as Americans.
On a final and somewhat humorous note, I want to comment that as a family, my near and dears and myself inadvertently have found a way to pay tribute to the first Thanksgiving that occurred in Florida. We have a new custom of bringing our turkeys in a saltwater bath the night before they are cooked to increase the moistness and quality of these feasting birds. To this brine, we have now begun adding orange peels and orange juice and a few other ingredients per the wonderful suggestion of a famous American cooking magazine. We find the addition of citrus to flavor the turkey quite appropriate, famous as Florida is for its citrus fruits and oranges above all. Go to Mass on Thanksgiving morning, and if you can, brine that Thanksgiving turkey with some good Florida orange juice and remember well the blessed day of September 8th, 1565, the celebration of the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary that likewise was the inaugural American Thanksgiving in beautiful Florida.
As Catholics and as Americans we should be overwhelmed by our blessings and consequently overcome with joy and gratitude at the gifts that God has given us. A Happy Thanksgiving 2017 to you and yours, with love,
(For a wonderful further resource on Catholics and the Thanksgiving holiday see Taylor Marshall’s excellent blog article, 6 Interesting Catholic Thanksgiving Facts You Need To Know.)