A Catholic Perspective on Thanksgiving

Visions of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry jelly, and pumpkin pie inspire most Americans to look forward to Thanksgiving Day. While most Americans learned about the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving tradition in grade school, what most Americans do not know is that there is a relatively unknown—and historic— secondary account of this national feast day. And it tracks back to the 1500s with strong Catholic roots. In fact, Thanksgiving is really a Catholic feast day. 

Although that first Thanksgiving date is unclear, historians note that when the Catholic Spanish explorers landed in the New World, each celebrated a feast with local Native Americans giving thanks to this new land. The first date goes back to May 1541 when Fr. Juan de Padilla held a Thanksgiving service in Canyon, Texas. The second feast celebration happened in 1565, when the Spanish admiral Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés kissed a cross held by Fr. Francisco Lopez and claimed Florida for God and his county. The third Spanish thanksgiving celebration happened in El Paso, Texas in 1598 when the soldiers and local natives feasted and watched Franciscan priests performing dramas for the locals showing the Catholic faith.

However, as historians note, a Native American named Squanto was not only Catholic, but also taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate their new land, and reportedly he did attend the first Thanksgiving event. Regardless of its origins, Thanksgiving is an American holiday with turkey runs, parades, and many other events—plus feasting with family and friends and even lonely neighbors. 

Most Americans can remember Thanksgiving even back to their childhood days. Such is the case with Catholic Ellen Urben, a native Pennsylvanian. Until the number of family members expanded, her parents hosted Thanksgiving dinner in their own home, and everyone would help. “I would help set the table,” she said, “and we had dinner between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Afterwards, the men went downstairs to watch the football game.” But as the numbers grew to a family of 40, they would sit down at a local restaurant for a Thanksgiving meal hosted by her parents. “We said, ‘it’s time to say grace’, and then we went around table saying what made us thankful,” she said. “And I would talk about something that happened to me, that was funny, and they shared stories with each other.” 

Catholic couple Peggy and Steve Gabriel also have a large family—8 children and 36 grandchildren—and host an immense feast in their home, seating teens in one room, youngsters in another, and adults elsewhere. Most who attend are active Catholics, including an occasional priest, so the Gabriels practice their faith by following this annual ritual. As Peggy explained, “Thanksgiving is an opportunity to be evangelical as we gather with family and others to celebrate with a meal,” she said. “We are evangelical with our own family members who belong to the faith but also those who don’t share our beliefs. The nature of Thanksgiving is gratitude to God and there is an understanding that faith underlies our celebration…. Making the effort to prepare delicious food with appealing ambiance is so worthwhile because it adds to the general enjoyment of everyone…. There is no better way to witness to our faith to others than just being who we are without doing deliberate and overt attempts to advertise our faith.” She added that the family does start Thanksgiving attending Mass, which they do daily. And the family’s Thanksgiving favorite: the bourbon sweet potatoes….see recipe below. 

Rita Steininger, whose home looks like a Catholic retreat center with paintings and statues, always plans for a busy family event with an elaborate menu. For her, Thanksgiving is a perfect time to thank God for the chance to bring people together, whatever their religious belief. “I believe I must be a witness in gratitude for God,” she said. “First, we say what we are thankful for and then thank God. I always do a prayer from the Gospel of the day. This year it will be a blessing to have a priest as our guest, but most likely I will ask him to say a prayer and tell what Thanksgiving means to him.”

Single mom Carol Buettner, a lay reader in her local parish, has a home that says “Catholic” on every wall. She annually hosts a small family dinner that starts with blessings a grandchild can read before the meal. She may occasionally throw into family conversations quotes from both the Old and the New Testaments. For this year’s event, she has invited a lonely neighbor who is apprehensive about coming because she does not speak good English and she is Buddhist. But Carol said, “It is time to include other people…I will ask people what they are thankful for this year, and when I speak, I would say I bring God into my prayers… Hospitality and welcoming is important because we are all brothers and sisters under Abraham so is having them as part of the family wherever they come from.”


Bourbon Sweet Potatoes

8 servings

6 cups peeled and sliced sweet potatoes

1 cup white sugar

½ cup butter

½ cup bourbon

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the sweet potatoes in a 9×13-inch baking pan. Combine the sugar, butter, bourbon, and vanilla extract in a large saucepan and heat to a boil. As soon as the sauce comes to a boil, pour it over the sweet potatoes. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are soft.

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A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world — from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith. Her latest work is Cooking with the Saints.

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