Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the pilgrims, the Mayflower, and the friendly Indians.
The first Thanksgiving was held about half a century earlier and more than a thousand miles to the south. And it was held by Catholic explorers.
There are actually several claimants to the first Catholic Thanksgiving.
One is the celebration held by a hardy band of Spanish settlers in 1598 in San Elizario, in what is present-day Texas. The expedition, which included women and children, had braved the Chihuahuan Desert and hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days. Once they reached the Rio Grande, the settlers paused and held a Thanksgiving Mass, celebrated by Franciscan missionaries, according to the account by journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick in her book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.
Then there was the Spanish mission to St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, which Michael Gannon, a Florida historian, has called “the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.” No turkey or cranberry sauce here—instead, the menu for the feast included salted pork, garbanzo beans, and red wine, according to Kirkpatrick.
The Spanish in Florida, in turn, came one year after the French Huguenots, who also had their own Thanksgiving in 1564.
And there may have been one even earlier—in Texas in 1541, led by yet another Spanish conquistador named Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, according to the Washington Post.
There are other Protestant contenders as well. They include Popham Colony in Maine in 1607, Jamestown in 1610, and Richmond Virginia in 1619, according to the Post.
But the very first one may have been far earlier even than the one in Texas. Some say the first to give thanks was Ponce de Leon, who voyaged with Christopher Columbus in 1493, the year after the explorer’s first trip.
Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, reportedly on an epic hunt for the legendary Fountain of Youth, but more likely on a mission to claim new territory for Spain. “Thanks be to Thee, O Lord, who has permitted me to see something new,” de Leon exclaimed upon his arrival. He is credited with giving Florida its name, which comes from the Spanish phrase pascua florida—“the feast of flowers,” which was the Easter season.
But being historically first still does not dislodge the place of primacy held by the pilgrims. For their celebration is the basis for the American holiday. Yet, even here, Catholics play an indispensable part of the story through the most seemingly unlikely character—Squanto. Usually, as the story is told, Squanto seems to appear out of nowhere, like some angelic figure out of the wilderness, fluent in English and willing to help the starving settlers.
What is less known is that Squanto had been captured by John Smith to be sold into slavery but had been rescued by Franciscan friars. Squanto was baptized into the Catholic faith and lived in England before returning to his home. So yes, we owe our ‘first’ Thanksgiving to an act of Catholic charity. (Special credit goes to Taylor Marshall for ferreting out this forgotten story.)
It’s further noteworthy that at least two of the first Catholic Thanksgivings were Masses because our term the Eucharist comes from a Greek word whose literal meaning is thanksgiving. Every time we attend Mass we participate in the most important thanksgiving feast there is. As the catechism states, “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that He has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification.”
As Catholics, then, this holiday reminds us of the ultimate source of all our thanksgiving.