Thanksgiving Day means lots of things to Americans: overeating a big turkey dinner, watching football, getting ready to scoop up the local mall’s 6 a.m. special sales the next morning.
Wait a minute. In his classic Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt Brace, 1958), Jesuit Father Francis Weiser described how people across many places and centuries have celebrated annual thanksgivings whose first purpose was to thank God for his bountiful blessings.
The Jews were commanded to celebrate a thanksgiving upon conclusion of the harvest (Deuteronomy 16:9-17). By medieval times, Christians in much of Western and Central Europe were celebrating Martinmas, what Father Weiser calls “the actual Thanksgiving Day of the Middle Ages.” For this harvest festival on Nov. 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, folks followed holy Mass with games, dancing and a festive dinner featuring roast goose and St. Martin’s wine, the harvest’s first batch.
Once settled in the New World, the English Pilgrims switched from scarce goose to plentiful wild turkey — or possibly deer — and officially proclaimed their second Thanksgiving in New England a day of prayer to thank God for delivering them from starvation and drought.
After George Washington decreed a national Thanksgiving Day for Nov. 26, 1789, most citizens desired “a national Thanksgiving Day,” wrote Father Weiser, “that would unite all Americans in a festival of gratitude and public acknowledgment for all the blessings God had conferred upon the nation.” President Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed it so in 1863.
What about today’s Catholics? How can we keep God in Thanksgiving Day and also Catholicize the occasion?
“First and foremost, attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day.” So urges Father Francis Peffley, pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville, Va. After all, he reminds, the word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving.
The Catechism backs this up: “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 …” (No. 1360). And: “Through Christ the Church can offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for all that God has made good, beautiful, and just in creation and in humanity” (No. 1359).
The Mass expresses not only thanksgiving, but also adoration, praise, contrition and petition. Father Peffley explains what should naturally follow. “The greatest way we can offer and show thanks to God is to offer the greatest prayer,” he says, adding that, by attending Mass on Thanksgiving Day, we can offer our thanksgiving “for all the blessings the Lord has given us in our lives. This would be the most perfect way to give thanks to God.”
Thanking by Serving
That’s the way the Hendey family in California begins the day. “Thanksgiving Day Mass puts the right spin on the fact we really want to focus on God’s blessing in our lives on Thanksgiving,” says Lisa Hendey, mother of two sons, founder of CatholicMom.com and a blogger at the Register’s sister website, FaithandFamilyLIVE.com.
That focus continues at their holiday table. Saying grace comes first. But what if some around the table do not profess the Catholic faith?
“Catholics shouldn’t shy away from or discount the traditional grace they say before meals,” Hendey says. “We say our traditional grace and then invite the ones not from a Catholic family to pray with their usual prayer. It’s nice to share those traditions.”
Hendey describes what is becoming a custom in her family’s Thanksgiving Day observance. They look back on family history and share stories about baptisms, marriages and confirmations. “It’s a good time to relive those,” she says.
Thinking back on how she grew up in a home in which the pastor was often welcomed for Thanksgiving, Hendey recommends during this Year for Priests inviting a priest to your celebration if he has no family to spend the day with. “It’s great for kids to see their priest outside of the church,” she says, “and have a more personal relationship.”
We can also share Thanksgiving with nonfamily in different ways. “We could help in a soup kitchen, or feed the poor, or go through our closets and give some of our clothing away to the poor that day,” recommends Father Peffley, noting we’ve been so blessed in our country over the years. “Thanksgiving is a good day to be generous and do these corporal and spiritual works of mercy to thank God for the blessings he has given us.”
That’s the Thanksgiving custom of Don and Susie Madda’s family in Cumming, Ga. On Thanksgiving Day they drive to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception’s St. Francis Table soup kitchen in downtown Atlanta to cook and serve turkey dinner to the homeless. Last year, even 1-year-old Michael came along with his parents and sisters Nicole and Danielle.
They pitch in to help prepare the meal, serve the dinner and clean up afterwards.
“The seven-hour shift is a blink,” says Susie. In between they go upstairs to Mass. Some of the homeless also attend Mass, like the teenage girl Susie invited to come last year after finding her sleeping outside the shrine holding her only possession, a pair of high-heeled shoes. Susie also invited her to the dinner. After accepting both invitations, the girl accepted a Bible, socks and extra layers of clothes.
The family’s custom bears fruit at home. Later, around their own Thanksgiving dinner table, everyone takes turns saying what they’re especially thankful for. Over the years the youngsters have gone from “Thank you for my puppy” to “Thank you, God, for healing our neighbor of her cancer.” (The friend not only conquered her cancer but also had a baby.)
Thanksgiving Every Day
Thanksgiving can prompt prayer in unique ways. “After the Thanksgiving dinner,” suggests Father Peffley, “do a family Rosary in thanksgiving for the blessings the family has received. As Father (Patrick) Peyton would say, ‘The family that prays together stays together.’ It would be a very beneficial way to ask Our Lady’s intercession, too, for the family.”
The Catechism hints at this Thanksgiving custom. “As in the prayer of petition,” says No. 2638, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.” In fact, long before our national holiday, the Pilgrims and Martinmas, St. Paul insisted on this Thanksgiving custom. He directed us to give thanks in all circumstances because it is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Susie Madda says that because their family is so blessed, they apply these customs to other Catholic holidays and all year. “We are not about serving just on Thanksgiving Day,” she says. “We serve at any opportunity. How blessed we are to have Thanksgiving 365 days a year.” For the Madda family, that means participation in daily Mass.
It’s a custom we, too, can continue, since the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the greatest act of thanksgiving we could possibly offer to God. As Father Weiser reminds, “In the Catholic Church, liturgically speaking, every day of the year is ‘Thanksgiving Day.’”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.