Thanksgiving, a Feast With Abundant Catholic Meaning and Pre-Pilgrim American History

Taylor Marshall takes an interesting look at the feast of Thanksgiving which I just read this morning on his Canterbury Tales website. He maintains that the “First Thanksgiving,” in what would become part of the United States, was held by the Spaniards and the native Americans at Saint Augustine fort in Florida in 1565. The banquet followed upon the Holy Mass being offered by a Franciscan priest in the company of Captain Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. This occurred before any of the Indians were converted.

The First American Thanksgivings

On our website Adam Miller has a fascinating article on this subject. He has a lot more incredible information on this and various other examples of the Catholics roots in America in his book: Discovering A Lost Heritage, the Catholic Origins of America.  You can purchase this great book of American Catholic history here on our website, along with a book review here. Mr. Miller’s research discovered two such celebrations that could qualify as “First Thanksgivings” north of the Rio Grande.

The first, in 1541, was a feast of thanksgiving wherein the newly converted Indians of Northern Texas and Francisco Coronado’s expeditionary force joined in prayer and festive collation. Father Juan Padilla offered the Thanksgiving Mass. He would be martyred the following year (the first North American martyr, in fact) by the hostile Indians in Kansas.

This communal repast, however, was a singular event. The second “Thanksgiving Feast,” held on April 30,1598, became an annual celebration. The table was spread in the area of what would be New Mexico, not far from what would be, a few years hence, a thriving mission post named San Juan. Here explorer Juan de Oñate and the Franciscans erected a large cross, and Oñate placed the land under the dominion of Christ the King, saying: “I want to take possession of this land today, April 30, 1598, in honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day of the Ascension of Our Lord.” The local tribes eagerly embraced the Catholic Faith. Every year, even to this day, a banquet/fiesta is held by the Indians, Mexicans, and all the other Americans to commemorate that first “Thanksgiving celebration” of over four hundred years before.

A Catholic Indian and the Plymouth Rock Thanksgiving

Mr. Marshall also gives mention to the thanksgiving banquet of 1588 in New Mexico, after providing some interesting tidbits about the Plymouth Rock thanksgiving of 1621. I did not know, for example, that the Patuxit Indian, Squanto, who negotiated some kind of a “peace” with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Confederacy of local tribes, was a baptized Catholic. Story was that he and a party of other Indians were taken prisoner by the English sea-faring marauders around 1615 and taken across the ocean to be sold as slaves. One of their stops on the way to England was the Spanish island of Malaga. Here, Squanto was sold to some Franciscan friars who had a mission to buy the poor slaves, convert them to the true Faith, and find a way to send them back to their native shores as lay apostles. Squanto, convinced the friars to put him, now a freed man, on a ship headed to London in the hopes that it would be easier for him to get back to his homeland in the company of those whose language he was already somewhat familiar with. He did make it to London where he spent a few years working for a shipbuilder. He finally managed to get on board a ship going west to the new colonies. In 1619, he arrived home in the area that would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony only to find that his entire village had been wiped out by a plague. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were astonished to find a cultured indigenous Indian who spoke perfect English. The common banquet held between the Indians and Pilgrims in 1621 at Plymouth was courtesy of Squanto, who made it all happen. Never really trusted, however, by the Wampanoag or Massaquoit natives — for reasons beyond the scope of this short article — the man who was literally “without a home” spent the rest of his life with the English colonists.


A National Holiday of Thanksgiving

Nevertheless, this was a one time culinary gala for the natives and the Pilgrims. Thirteen years later, the brutality of New England’s war against the Pequots ended any short-lived social harmony. Adam Miller’s article notes the fact that the proclamation for a national holiday of Thanksgiving, to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, was only issued in 1863, by President Lincoln. The intention of the president was to give  thanksgiving for God’s blessings and, more particularly, as a day of nationwide petition for His mercy and an end to the War between the States. The Lincoln proclamation had nothing to do with the Pilgrims. After 1863, the last Thursday of November became an annual national holiday.

Captain Miles Standish

Another Catholic character at the Pilgrim Thanksgiving Day banquet was the Mayflower’s hired military Captain, Miles Standish. The question was raised by historians as to his religion on account of the fact that in his writings Standish never mentions being a member of any Christian denomination. If he were a religious “Puritan,” which the Pilgrims were, he would certainly have identified himself as one, or been listed in their church roster. The new sect was very adamant about a public profession of their rejection of all that hinted of Romanism. If he were either a Catholic or an Anglican, that would explain his silence. Catholics were outlawed in Massachusetts and, even if an Anglican, that would have made him odious to the Puritans. The point is that in his will Standish expresses his anguish and disappointment that he cannot pass on to his children the inheritance that he, himself, was deprived of as one of the principal heirs to the Standish estate’s fortune. The main branch of the Standish family, from Duxbury, Devonshire, was one of the most prominent among the Catholic families who rejected the new religion in England. Their lands and fortune were confiscated by the greedy pawns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth.  Another branch, however, gave in to the heretical monarchs. If Standish hailed from this branch, which was equally wealthy, there would have been only one major obstacle for him receiving his inheritance: If he refused to join the Church of England. Both scenarios argue that, even if Standish was remiss in practicing his religion (which is obvious in that he choose to live among Protestants in America) nevertheless, he never proclaimed himself a Protestant of any kind. This, it seems, he would not do for any pecuniary motive. The fact that Standish called the Massachusetts settlement that he founded “Duxbury,” adds to the strength of the opinion that he was not at all a “protester” against Catholicism, and, that he was loyal to the true religion to the extent that he would not renounce it for any inheritance.

Pilgrim? Yes; but not a Puritan. Catholic? Highly likely; but hardly exemplary.  For anyone who is interested, you can read a long examination of Miles Standish’s Catholicism here in a chapter of Catholic World beginning on page 668.

Thanksgiving and the Holy Eucharist

Finally, as Catholics, Thanksgiving means much more than being grateful to God for the food He provides the body. It is a day that we can dedicate to a higher Thanksgiving, a Eucharistia (a Greek word meaning “Good Thanks”) for the Holy Sacrament of His love, the pledge of our eternal life.

Coincidentally, this raises the question of Lincoln’s choice of a Thursday for the holiday feast. Why Thursday? I would like to know the answer to that, but I don’t. Maybe a reader can supply that information. This we all do know: The Holy Eucharist was instituted by Christ on the Thursday before Passover. Educated Protestants, especially American Protestants, of the mid-nineteenth century knew more about the Catholic religion than most Catholics today. That is a sad fact. Freethinker that he was, and not even Christian in his views about the divinity of Christ, Thomas Jefferson was well acquainted with the writings of Saint Robert Bellarmine for one, and perhaps some other Catholic writers. This was not unusual in his day. Unless a Protestant was raised in a remote mountain hamlet and had no access to anything Catholic, he would certainly know that Catholics celebrated the Last Supper on Holy Thursday as a feast of the “Holy Eucharist.” They knew the meaning of the word “Eucharist.”  Could that latent knowledge of a word only Catholics and “high churchmen” used have motivated Lincoln to choose a Thursday for a national day of Thanksgiving. I can hardly doubt it.

Happy Thanksgiving!!