Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day? That's a great story that is rarely told

If Christmas is referred to as “The greatest story ever told,” America’s first Thanksgiving could very well be “The greatest story you’ve never heard before.”

The reason for that is because the first recorded Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at Plymouth in 1621 may not have been the first of its kind. In fact, some historians say it actually took place more than 50 years earlier in St. Augustine.

Spanish documents, first highlighted by University of Florida Professor Michael Gannon, revealed that the first meal between European colonists and Native Americans on U.S. soil took place on the grounds of what is now the Fountain of Youth in 1565.

The city’s founder Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the colonists broke bread with the Timucua Indians soon after the Spanish made landfall on Sept. 8. In Gannon’s book, “The Cross in the Sand,” he noted, “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”

De Aviles came ashore on that day and subsequently named the land St. Augustine in honor of the saint on whose feast day was August 28, the day Florida was first sighted by the ships. Members of the Timucua tribe greeted the fleet. Records show it was a peaceful exchange.

In his memoirs, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who celebrated mass that day, wrote: “The feast day [was] observed… after mass, [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.”

Although Gannon’s book was published in 1965, no one paid attention to it until 1985 when a reporter from The Associated Press called the professor looking for a new angle on the holiday. When the wire service put the article out for its member newspapers to print a few days before Thanksgiving, the story sent shockwaves across New England. Gannon was immediately dubbed, “The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

The meal celebrated by the Spanish had already been planned as a feast to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, and coincided with their safe arrival. Historians like Gannon have argued that the first real Thanksgiving didn’t feature Protestant separatists in Massachusetts, but Catholic explorers in Florida.

Gannon, a legendary figure among Florida historians, died last year at age 89. Gannon may have died, but the Catholic case for Thanksgiving lives on thanks to other historians, researchers and writers who argue the honor should go to Spanish settlers.

Historians say the Spanish cooked the meal, which consisted of salted pork, garbanzo beans, bread and red wine. The food came from the rations pool held on the boats. There is no record of the locals bringing anything. Had they brought food, historians say, it would have consisted of local crops such as corn and yucca — but no turkey.

A second similar celebration took place on April 30, 1598 in Texas, when Don Juan de Onate, a conquistador who eventually colonized the Southwest for Spain, declared a day of Thanksgiving to be commemorated with the celebration of a Catholic service to coincide with their safe arrival in San Elizario in modern-day El Paso County.

Can any one faith tradition lay claim to Thanksgiving Day and the uniqueness of this American holiday?

“No one has a monopoly on thanksgiving and a thankful heart. God's grace and mercy knows no boundaries,” said nationally syndicated columnist Bill Tinsley, who writes about currrent events though the lens of faith and religion.

The Thanksgiving meal Americans commemorate today featured a group of former Anglicans who split from the Church of England. That turkey meal with the local tribe also featured a Catholic who had been instrumental in bringing the sides together. Squanto, who had been enslaved by the English and later freed by Franciscans from Spain, was baptized and converted to Catholicism.

The dueling history accounts of the first Thanksgiving don’t end with the Spanish.

Continue reading “Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day,” by Clemente Lisi of The Media Project.

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