6 Catholic Facts About Thanksgiving

As one telling has it, Thanksgiving has anti-Catholic roots. Protestants were uncomfortable with Catholic feasting at Christmas, but intrigued by it all the same, so they stressed Thanksgiving, an earlier feast that would pre-empt the Christmas party.

But that’s not the whole story. Every year various Catholic takes on Halloween are offered. Here are a few, gathered into one convenient place …

1: The First Thanksgiving was a Mass.

Catholics love retelling the story, and non-Catholics have noticed it too: the first Thanksgiving in America wasn’t in 1621 in Massachusetts, but more than half a century earlier in Florida.

An expedition of 800 under Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Aviles celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in 1565 and ate and drank with Indians.

“It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land,” according to historian Michael Gannon.

2: But even the real first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim one, came thanks to a Catholic guy.

The 1621 Thanksgiving that we all know and love also only exists thanks to a Catholic.

Far from being a myth, this brief clip from the PBS’s 2015 documentary on the first colonial settlers tells “The True Story of the First Thanksgiving.”

But Philip Kosloski shares more details. Long before 1621, the Native American Squanto suffered a long and ignominious history of enslavement and freedom, but it all led to two facts: 1.) He was baptized Catholic and 2.) He learned English and returned to America in time to teach the Pilgrims who came in 1620 where to find fish and how to grow the corn and squash served at the first Thanksgiving.

Without him the pilgrims could easily have been wiped out in their first winter, leaving no-one to feast and no Thanksgiving holiday each November.

3: The first Thanksgiving proclamation came as Washington was opening the nation to Catholics.

In the year 1789, George Washington wrote the first Thanksgiving Proclamation (“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits …) was also a watershed year for Catholics.

Also in the year 1789, Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence became Maryland’s first senator.

Last, 1789 was the year John Carroll, his brother, became the first bishop in the United States by order of Pope Pius VI.

George Washington wrote an open letter to Catholics in America a few months later, giving thanks for Catholics. He said he hoped Americans would “not forget the patriotic part which [Catholics] took in the accomplishment of their Revolution” and “the important assistance which America received from” France — “a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.” He pronounced Catholics “worthy members of the Community … equally entitled to the protection of civil Government.”

4: Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving, and Catholics.

The other great Founding Father of Thanksgiving was Abraham Lincoln. In midst of the Civil War, after the Battle of Gettysburg made the Union’s victory only a matter of time, Lincoln appealed to the Thanksgiving story to “heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”

Edward Murr in his book Kentucky Childhood  notes that “The purpose and aim of [certain writers] was to show that Catholic teaching and Catholic influence early in Lincoln’s life made for certain later attitudes.”

How might Catholics have influenced Lincoln? He repudiated the anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” party in an 1855 letter, saying: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’”

Lincoln also famously allowed for a black Catholics in Washington, D.C., to use the White House lawn for a July 4th fundraising event to help fund a new black Catholic parish.

5: JFK’s last act as president was his 1963 Thanksgiving proclamation.

“Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving,” so begins the Thanksgiving proclamation of America’s first Catholic president. He would be shot dead days later on Nov. 22, 1963, less than a week before Thanksgiving.

In the New York Times, Elliot Ackerman noted how the proclamation came after Bay of Pigs in a year filled with angst and fear, and wrote, “Maybe I’m overanalyzing Kennedy’s proclamation. Perhaps it was just a few paragraphs drafted by a staff member. Yet it reads as if it wasn’t. It reads as if Kennedy was asking the country to do one last thing: Take a break from divisions. It reads as if Kennedy could foresee the fractious decade ahead as if he knew the cost of the division was blood.”

The president pleaded: “Let us gather in sanctuaries dedicated to worship and in homes blessed by family affection to express our gratitude for the glorious gifts of God; and let us earnestly and humbly pray that He will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.”

6: Thanksgiving keeps God — and Divine Mercy — on secular calendars.

The name “Thanksgiving” has become especially important as America has grown more secular. To this day, our need for Thanksgiving is practically a proof for the existence of God. We intuitively realize that we need to thank Someone for all we have received.

Father Michael Gaitley, in his book 33 Days to Merciful Love quotes Fr. Seraphim Michalcnko, MIC, who told him “The way you live trust is by praise and thanksgiving, to praise and thank God in all things, That’s what the Lord said to St. Faustina.”

“Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude. Has he not said: ‘OFFER TO GOD THE SACRIFICES OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING!’”

I, for one, am Thankful for Thanksgiving

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story on Ex Corde. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.