The Catholic Roots of Thanksgiving
In modern America, the Thanksgiving celebration has come to include family gatherings, feasting on turkey & fix-in’s, and watching some football. The night may end with a slice of pumpkin pie, punctuated by Christmas lists and serious holiday shopping.
The original holiday was of course much different. It was a simple feast offering humble thanks for the blessing of survival.
Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a Church holy day. Yet, little is known about the Catholic roots of this annually commemorated day of gratitude.
Traditional tales hold that the English Puritans struggled to establish a successful colony in the New World. The story relates that nearly half the original colonists expired in the harsh New England winter. The remaining half persevered, yet by springtime 1621, they were still uncertain of their future. Then a kindhearted Native arrived and taught the settlers methods for soil fertilization and corn growing. This Native American also instructed the settlers on the best spots for catching fish.
This act of kindness proved to be the turning point for the colonists. Their crops thrived, and the Puritans celebrated with a feast. Every November we commemorate this fortunate turn of events, enjoying a family feast in our own homes and giving thanks for the year’s blessings.
What inspired this benevolent behavior toward the Puritans?
The hero of this Thanksgiving tale bore the Native name, Tisquantum; people called him “Squanto.” Providentially, he endured a unique past in which he encountered various European peoples. In 1614, Squanto learned that some European groups sought profit through enslaving others. Lieutenant John Smith, who later traveled with Pocahontas, captured Squanto and other Native Americans to sell as slaves to the Spanish. However, a group of Franciscan friars discovered the plot and acquired the captives in order to release them and thus restore their dignity. Indebted, the Natives listened intently to the friars’ teachings regarding the Catholic faith and eventually requested membership in God’s holy family through the sacrament of baptism.
Squanto traveled to London as a free man and labored in the shipyards, gradually learning the English language. Eventually, he crossed the Atlantic and returned to his homeland, five years after his original captivity. Sadly, he soon discovered that the people he had left behind were being decimated by European diseases.
As this tragedy unfolded, Squanto could have embraced bitterness and vowed revenge. Instead, he chose to see humanity in desperation rather than a foreign race with contrary values intruding upon his homeland.
Could it have been his Catholic catechism which inspired such extraordinary compassion?
Squanto became well-known among the Plymouth settlers due to his English fluency and was often called upon as an interpreter to facilitate communications between the English colonists and the Native Americans.
He chose to take to heart the simplicity and benevolence of the Franciscan friars and pay it forward. During this time of fear, suspicion, and political division, may Squanto’s approach inspire us toward compassion for our neighbors in need. May we remember moments in our lives when we witnessed extraordinary kindness and show that same compassion and mercy toward others.
Article written by Myriah C. Boudreaux for Christian Catholic Media
Myriah C. Boudreaux graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville with a BA in Psychology. Soon after, she left her native Southern California home to marry a FUS alumnus, start a family, settle in Bayou Country with her Cajun husband, and begin a career homeschooling their ever-growing family. With seven children ranging from ages 21 – 2, her practical understanding of Heavenly Father's patience, love, and mercy is continually expanding.
Ahlquist, Dale, et al. “The Catholic Origins of Thanksgiving.” Catholic World Report, 27 Nov. 2019, www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/11/27/the-catholic-origins-of-thanksgiving/.
Marshall, Dr Taylor. “Squanto, the Catholic Hero of the Thanksgiving.” Taylor Marshall, 21 Nov. 2012, taylormarshall.com/2012/11/squanto-catholic-hero-of-thanksgiving.html.