The Catholic Roots of Thanksgiving

48040968_sAlthough it’s hardly a well-known fact, the first Thanksgiving didn’t really take place in Massachusetts in 1621. It took place in Florida in 1565 and the celebration began with a Catholic Mass.

In an article appearing on, historian Dr. Michael Gannon, author of The Cross in the Sand, says that the first Thanksgiving actually occurred 56 years before the event at Plymouth Rock. It was on the feast of Our Lady’s nativity – September 8, 1565 – when Spanish pilgrims landed in St. Augustine, Florida.

“When the first Spanish settlers landed in what is now St. Augustine on September 8, 1565, to build a settlement, their first act was to hold a religious service to thank God for the safe arrival of the Spanish fleet,” Dr. Gannon said.

“After the mass, Father Francisco Lopez, the Chaplin of the Spanish ships and the first pastor of St. Augustine, stipulated that the natives from the Timucua tribe be fed along with the Spanish settlers, including Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the leader of the expedition. It was the very first Thanksgiving and the first Thanksgiving meal in the United States.”

So what did they eat? Whatever the Spaniards had brought with them for the journey – salted pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread and red wine. Because they had stopped in San Juan before arriving in Florida, it is believed that the menu might have also included corn, fresh fish, berries, or beans.”

Not exactly the big turkey and stuffing feast we’re all accustomed to!

Writing for Aleteia, Philip Kosloski references the memoirs of Father Francisco who said the day began when he came ashore ahead of Menendez. He then went forward to meet the commander while holding a cross. “Menendez came on land, knelt and kissed the cross,” he wrote.

“. . . The feast day [was] observed . . . after Mass,” he continued, and it was at this time that “the Adelantado [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.”

It would be more than 50 years later that the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock would celebrate their famous thanksgiving meal with the local tribes and another 150 years before President George Washington would proclaim the first national Thanksgiving holiday in December of 1777 to commemorate the victory over the British.

Although Thanksgiving is largely celebrated as a “secular” holiday, history proves it was an entirely Catholic affair!

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