Let’s face it, though: while these long-established traditions are enjoyable family events, there’s nothing specifically Catholic about the Thanksgiving holiday. The idea of thanksgiving, however, is a very Catholic tradition indeed. Many Catholics find it is especially appropriate and meaningful to focus on the uniquely Catholic meaning of thanksgiving.
Catholic author [and CE columnist] Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio is the executive director of the www.crossroadsinitiative.com) a website devoted to distributing resources aimed at helping Catholics “unpack the precious gift of the Eucharist.”
“Christianity and Judaism are unique among all religions in their emphasis on thanksgiving,” he explains. “We believe in a God Who has truly entered into human history. We give Him thanks for His mighty deeds in the Eucharist especially. In each Eucharistic thanksgiving we give thanks not just for natural blessings, but for the fact that God supernaturally enters our lives.”
Dr. D’Ambrosio recommends that Catholic parents can emphasize the Eucharistic meaning of thanksgiving in their families by adding their own uniquely Catholic touches to Thanksgiving holiday traditions.
“Even in traditional Thanksgiving celebration we are called to thank a Creator for our natural gifts and blessings. At Thanksgiving dinner, family members can read scripture together perhaps the Gospel story of the 10 lepers who were healed or a Psalm of thanksgiving and then take turns sharing the things for which they are most thankful.”
D’Ambrosio points out that another traditional element of Thanksgiving that lends itself easily to a Eucharistic focus is the gathering of friends and family. In particular, he emphasizes the communal element of the Eucharist as it is comparable to a family gathering and a shared meal.
“It is especially important that we realize Christ’s real presence in other people. At Mass, we are the body of Christ and all the angels and saints are present. When we celebrate the Eucharist together it is meant to bring us into deeper communion with the whole Church. When we receive communion, we make a public statement of unity.”
He suggests that families can underscore community-building in their Thanksgiving Day observances by performing service to the poor prior to attending family celebrations or by inviting outsiders to share in their Thanksgiving meal. There are many single people, elderly folks, or others who live far from family who might welcome an invitation to a family-style event. In fact, a D’Ambrosio family tradition includes inviting priests and religious to take part in the family gathering.
“It helps to build a sense a community within the Church and gives the kids contact with those who are living out their vocations in the Church,” he says.
Sr. Patricia Proctor of the Poor Clare Sisters in Spokane, Washington, and author of 201 Inspirational Stories of the Eucharist (Poor Clare Sisters, 2004) agrees that the mostly secular holiday of Thanksgiving presents Catholic families with a unique opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the gift of the Eucharist.
“One meaning of Eucharist is to ‘give thanks’ so when this special day of ‘Thanksgiving’ comes around, suddenly without even trying, we start counting all the things we are thankful for.”
She suggests that Catholic families can most effectively highlight the true meaning of thanksgiving by attending Mass together as a family on Thanksgiving Day.
“Make a special effort to go to Mass on Thanksgiving Day. Tell each member of the family to remember something they are truly thankful for and to tell Jesus ‘thank you’ for this at the time of communion or at some other quiet time during or after the Mass.”
Additionally, Sr. Proctor encourages families to pray an “Our Father” together or to add a communal prayer of thanksgiving to their traditional grace before the Thanksgiving dinner.
“Use the prayers of intercession at Mass as an example. Have each family member make a petition of thankfulness and have everyone respond to it ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ or something to that effect.”
She adds, however, that families need not go to great lengths or perform elaborate rituals in order to have a meaningful Thanksgiving gathering and shared prayer time. In fact, she recalls that when she was growing up among her own large family of seven brothers and three sisters, the grace they prayed at the Thanksgiving meal was the same traditional one the family prayed all year long. Even so, it carried great meaning for her.
“The occasion of Thanksgiving often made the words seem much more poignant and meaningful. Sometimes we don’t have to do more in our prayer life, but just become more aware in a deeper sense of what we so often say every day.”
For Denise Mantei of Apple Valley, California, this year’s Thanksgiving celebration will include morning Mass with her husband and five daughters followed by a traditional dinner with all the trimmings shared with members from both sides of the extended family. She recognizes that she and her loved ones have been abundantly blessed and welcomes the opportunity to give thanks for God’s gifts as a family.
“As I get older, I find myself reflecting more on what there is to be thankful for. How is it that I was so blessed to be born in America, that I was raised in a Catholic home, that I found a spouse I could share and live my faith with, that I have been blessed with five beautiful daughters, that we have such wonderful friends, that we have a nice home and enough money?”
During the Year of the Eucharist, Mantei attended Eucharistic adoration more frequently, attended more weekday Masses, and introduced her children to the spiritual communion prayer. In particular, she intends to emphasize the importance of the Eucharist to her children on Thanksgiving Day by initiating a discussion about the gift of the Eucharist during their drive from Mass to Thanksgiving dinner.
“I think the biggest thing we can do to link Thanksgiving to the Eucharist is to remember that the word 'Eucharist' means thanksgiving. As a country we look forward to one day to celebrate our thankfulness as a country. Our families should recognize that we celebrate Thanksgiving every Sunday. We also have the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving every day as Catholics. And what is it we are thankful for? It is the Lord Himself. Almighty God gave Himself to be our ransom from sin. What greater gift is there than salvation?”
Danielle Bean is a freelance writer and mother of seven. Her newly-released book is My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom. Read an excerpt, order your copy, and read her daily musings at: www.daniellebean.com.
(This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.)