The First Thanksgiving

Bulletin Letter, Christ the King C

During my assignment at the Cathedral in Sioux Falls, one of the other priests there started a small garden next to the rectory, growing basil, peppers, and tomatoes. Every so often, he would use a very fragrant fertilizer made from fish parts. If you’re familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, you’ll recall that the Native American Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant their crops along with placing fish in the ground for fertilizer. This helped them to even have a harvest to celebrate Thanksgiving in October of 1621. What we probably don’t realize, and what most history books don’t mention, is that the feast in 1621 among English settlers was actually not the first Thanksgiving Feast held in what is now the United States.

The First was actually celebrated among Spanish settlers near what would become St. Augustine in Florida on September 8, 1565, more than half a century earlier. After making it to shore, the chaplain of the expedition, Fr. Francisco Lopez, celebrated Mass (the word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek for ‘Thanksgiving’) to give praise and thanks to God for a safe voyage. Being September 8, they celebrated in honor of the Birthday of Mary, the Mother of God (nine months after the observance of her Immaculate Conception on December 8).

After Mass, Fr. Lopez ordered that the natives from the Timucua tribe be fed along with the Spanish settlers. That first Thanksgiving meal consisted of the supplies of the voyage, salted pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread, and red wine—after the Body and Blood of Christ received during Mass, of course. The meal may have also included Caribbean foods collected when they made a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on their way to Florida. If the Timucua natives contributed food, it would have likely included corn, fresh fish, berries, or beans.

Even the presence of Squanto and what he did to aid the survival of the Pilgrims leading up to the later English Thanksgiving was due in part to the help of Spanish Catholics. Squanto had been taught English and trained as an interpreter by settlers from previous expeditions in New England, but one of the officers took him back to Europe and planned to sell him into slavery. Franciscan friars in Spain found Squanto and ensured his freedom, instructed him in the faith, and likely baptized him. He later made his way to England, where he worked as a shipbuilder while improving his English. He joined an expedition to return home, where the Pilgrims would meet him a year later at Plymouth.

This Thanksgiving, we praise God for the many blessings He continues to share with us, our families, our friends, our State and country. We thank Him especially for the great gift of our Catholic faith, the salvation Christ won for us, and the nourishment He provides in His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist, that First and most awesome Thanksgiving meal.

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