Less Turkey, More Thanksgiving

Did the first Thanksgiving feast in America include a Mass?

Last week I attended preschool with my three-year-old for a “bring your mom to school” day. At one point, the students were instructed to grab a book from the classroom library and take it to their moms and read together as a pair.

Upon selecting her book, Lucy was quite excited to show me the book she selected, “If You Were at the First Thanksgiving,” a typical children’s book about the historic harvest festival celebrated at Plymouth Rock circa 1620. “Oh, look at this!” I said, attempting my best to affirm her choice, but admittedly I cringed a little on the inside.

Why? Well, because it’s quite possible the “first Thanksgiving” in America actually occurred in St. Augustine, Florida rather than Plymouth Rock.

Say what?

That’s right — St. Augustine, Florida. Bet you didn’t learn that in grade school, did you? I didn’t, and were it not for the “History of Catholicism in America” class I’m currently taking with Joel through his diaconate formation program at Conception Seminary College, I may have never learned this piece of history.

The first Catholic Mass held in St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565; Credit: St. Augustine Historical Society

For those whose history classes skipped over this information, here’s a brief synopsis: Following in the wake of the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus under Spanish patronage, the Spanish began to establish missions in the “new world.” One such Spaniard, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, established a Catholic parish and mission along the northern Atlantic coast of Florida, naming the community St. Augustine, Florida. Historical records indicate that de Aviles celebrated a feast of thanksgiving centered on a Catholic Mass with Timucua Indians on September 8, 1565 — that’s 50+ years before the Pilgrims sat down and shared a meal with natives at Plymouth Rock.

There are some fine folks working to ensure future American history books include some mention of the importance the Catholic missionaries had on the development of this country prior to the historic harvest feast on Plymouth Rock (see: Florida teacher chips away at Plymouth Rock Thanksgiving myth). But does it really matter if the REAL first Thanksgiving in America was celebrated at St. Augustine and not Plymouth Rock? While it would be nice for American history books to at least provide some mention of the Church’s missionary efforts in the new world, as Catholics, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC, 1324).  The word Eucharist itself comes from the Greek words eucharistein and eulogein that “recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim — especially during a meal — God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification” (CCC, 1328).

So the Eucharist is an action of thanksgiving to God and every time we celebrate Mass, we share in a meal of thanksgiving with one another. And as Dr. Edward Sri points out in A Biblical Walk Through The Mass, “Thanksgiving is one thing we can actually offer the Creator that he does not possess already,” (p. 98). He goes on to quote first century Jewish commentator Philo:

We affirm that the activity most characteristic of God is to give His blessings. But that most fitting to creation is to give thanks, because that is the best it can offer him in return. For when creation tries to make any other return to God it finds that its gifts already belongs to the Creator of the universe, not to the creature offering it. Since we now realize that to give due worship to God only one duty is incumbent upon us, that of giving thanks, we must carry it out in all times and in all places.

Finally, if you read President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving instituting the national holiday in 1863 (smack dab in the middle of the American Civil War), you will find the purpose was to set apart a day of thanksgiving and praise to God for His abundant blessings of food, land, family, and freedom. Lincoln proclaimed, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

So this and every Thanksgiving, one of the most fitting things to do beyond simply eating turkey and pumpkin pie or watching the Detroit Lions get beat, is attending Mass and offering praise and thanksgiving to the One Creator who gifted it all.


    • says

      I know! I felt so silly when it all came together in my mind. It was like that moment I had when watching the Sixth Sense and figuring out who (or what) Bruce Willis really was the whole time… :)

      Love that quote from Philo, too. Do you want to borrow the book I referenced by Dr. Sri? I can mail it to you if you want. You will love it!

  1. Andrew says

    Thanks for this reminder. I do vaguely remember learning in school about St. Augustine, FL. However, as I am sure you too are well aware of the bias against Catholics whether it be in the media or from Protestants, it should come as no surprise that this is soon forgotten. From a purely historical point of view it seems to make more sense than the same story we hear every year.

    On a side note but in the same vein, I suggest for those who are interested to look up what I call the “original Guadalupe”. Like St. Augustine, FL, this town is also usually quickly forgotten when someone learns about Our Lady of Guadalupe. She originally appeared in Spain and encouraged evangelization of the New World.


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