The Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day

NEW YORK — If Christmas is referred to as “The greatest story ever told,” America’s first Thanksgiving could very well be “The greatest story you’ve never heard before.”

The reason for that is because the first recorded Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at Plymouth in 1621 may not have been the first of its kind. In fact, some historians say it actually took place more than 50 years earlier in St. Augustine.

Spanish documents, first highlighted by University of Florida Professor Michael Gannon, revealed that the first meal between European colonists and Native Americans on U.S. soil took place on the grounds of what is now the Fountain of Youth in 1565. The city’s founder Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the colonists broke bread with the Timucua Indians soon after the Spanish made landfall on September 8. In Gannon’s book, The Cross in the Sand, he noted, “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”

De Aviles came ashore on that day and subsequently named the land St. Augustine in honor of the saint on whose feast day was August 28, the day Florida was first sighted by the ships. Members of the Timucua tribe greeted the fleet. Records show it was a peaceful exchange.

In his memoirs, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who celebrated mass that day, wrote: “The feast day [was] observed… after mass, [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.”

Although Gannon’s book was published in 1965, no one paid attention to it until 1985 when a reporter from The Associated Press called the professor looking for a new angle on the holiday. When the wire service put the article out for its member newspapers to print a few days before Thanksgiving, the story sent shockwaves across New England. Gannon was immediately dubbed, “The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

The meal celebrated by the Spanish had already been planned as a feast to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, and coincided with their safe arrival. Historians like Gannon have argued that the first real Thanksgiving didn’t feature Protestant separatists in Massachusetts, but Catholic explorers in Florida.

Gannon, a legendary figure among Florida historians, died last year at age 89. Gannon may have died, but the Catholic case for Thanksgiving lives on thanks to other historians, researchers and writers who argue the honor should go to Spanish settlers.

Historians say the Spanish cooked the meal, which consisted of salted pork, garbanzo beans, bread and red wine. The food came from the rations pool held on the boats. There is no record of the locals bringing anything. Had they brought food, historians say, it would have consisted of local crops such as corn and yucca — but no turkey.

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A second similar celebration took place on April 30, 1598 in Texas, when Don Juan de Onate, a conquistador who eventually colonized the Southwest for Spain, declared a day of Thanksgiving to be commemorated with the celebration of a Catholic service to coincide with their safe arrival in San Elizario in modern-day El Paso County.

Can any one faith tradition lay claim to Thanksgiving Day and the uniqueness of this American holiday?

“No one has a monopoly on thanksgiving and a thankful heart. God's grace and mercy knows no boundaries,” said nationally syndicated columnist Bill Tinsley, who writes about currrent events though the lens of faith and religion.

The Thanksgiving meal Americans commemorate today featured a group of former Anglicans who split from the Church of England. That turkey meal with the local tribe also featured a Catholic who had been instrumental in bringing the sides together. Squanto, who had been enslaved by the English and later freed by Franciscans from Spain, was baptized and converted to Catholicism.

The dueling history accounts of the first Thanksgiving don’t end with the Spanish. There is yet another claim to the first Thanksgiving belonging to French colonists. A year before the feast in St. Augustine, on June 30, 1564, French explorer Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere held a meal to celebrate the establishment of Fort Caroline, Florida, located near present-day Jacksonville. On that occasion, the Timucua Indians welcomed the French and helped prepare a feast in their honor. French rations had been depleted after the vessels had traveled along the Florida coastline days before making landfall. As a result, the natives brought alligator to the meal.

“We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please His Grace to continue His accustomed goodness toward us,” Laudonniere wrote.

Why don’t the French and Spanish get any credit for holding the first Thanksgiving? The Jacksonville Historical Society notes on its website: “It helps to remember that it is the victors that typically write history. The English beat out Spain and France for control of North America. Therefore, it is English laws, customs, ceremonies and traditions that have been promoted as our foundational myths. Another reason, perhaps, is that when the United States officially established the November Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, Florida was still part of the Confederacy.”

Prayers of thanks are common among most religious faiths following harvests. Thanksgiving in North America is rooted in English tradition dating back to the Protestant Reformation. Under the reign of Henry VIII — and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar — reforms in 1536 reduced the number of holidays to 27. Some Puritans wished to eliminate all holidays, even Christmas and Easter, and replace them with special days set aside to fasting and giving thanks.

The squabble over Thanksgiving also includes Virginia. Claims that English settlers had celebrated a Thanksgiving in 1619 at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County caused President John F. Kennedy to strike a compromise. Kennedy, the first and only U.S. president to be Roman Catholic, issued a proclamation on November 5, 1963, where he credited both states for the holiday.


“Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving,” Kennedy wrote. “On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God.”

It was that Calvinist tradition the Pilgrims brought with them across the Atlantic. Thanksgiving as we know it in the United States today was celebrated on different days depending on the state and stretches back to America’s founding. For decades, it was primarily celebrated in New England. By the start of the 19th century, the final Thursday of November became the holiday’s unofficial date, making the United States the first country ever to set aside a national day dedicated to giving thanks.

A national holiday was first officially cemented in 1863 by a proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln, following a decades-old letter-writing campaign by writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale. The Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, and the coming together of these two distinct people, quickly became a metaphor for the North and South who were in the midst of a bloody Civil War.

“In all generations, including the Civil War in which Lincoln declared the first national Thanksgiving, there are those who believe and those who don't, those who practice mercy, forgiveness, and righteousness and those who harbor prejudice, hatred, resentment and evil,” Tinsely said. “God sends his rain on both. He blesses both. While our nation is increasingly secular, the ‘salt’ of Christ's true followers continues to penetrate the world.” 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a proclamation in 1939 changing the date to the next to the last Thursday of the month. Finally, Roosevelt signed a joint resolution by Congress two years later changing Thanksgiving Day back to the fourth Thursday in November.

To commemorate the holiday this year, Americans this Thursday may want to serve some salted pork — and possibly even alligator meat — with their turkey dinner as they gather around the table to give thanks.