Strictly speaking, America's Thanksgiving Day is not an especially significant occasion for Catholics. It is, after all, a secular holiday with Protestant origins. The liturgical calendar doesn't recognize it.

But you can say this about many Catholic families: They know an opportunity when they see one.

Indeed many Catholics, as they plan to gather with friends and family over a traditional turkey dinner, are especially eager to take advantage of Thanksgiving as an occasion for themselves and their families to grow in the faith.

We Gather Together

One such Catholic is Shari Cummings, mother of 11, of Earlville, Iowa. This year, she and her husband, Roger, plan to spend Thanksgiving at home with their at-home children and their grown offspring who are able to come home for the holiday. A number of extended family members will be along, too.

The Cummings' family traditions involve much more than a conventional family dinner, though. Cummings sees “praising God for his goodness and mercy, giving to those less fortunate and thankfulness for a bountiful year” as important aspects of the Thanksgiving holiday that are wholly consistent with her family's practice of their Catholic faith.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Cummings family will attend Mass together and then return home to sing hymns of thanksgiving such as “Now Thank We All Our God,” “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “We Gather Together.”

And, during prayers before the meal, family members will take turns naming the things for which each is most thankful.

“We will praise God for his blessings and share with others what God has given us,” Cummings says. “We'll also be choosing a book which will be read after dinner during the Advent season to ready our hearts for the birth of Christ.”

Thanksgiving Visitation

Renee Winkeljohn of Enid, Okla., proprietor of http://www.CatholicMoms.com a Web, site designed to assist Catholic women in their vocations as mothers, also recognizes Thanksgiving as an occasion for Catholics to grow in faith.

Instead of celebrating in their own home, this year Winkeljohn, her husband, Greg, and their six children will attend Mass as a family and then drive to her brother's home in Kansas for Thanksgiving.

“Obviously inviting family and friends to your home, cooking for them and entertaining them is a way to practice the virtue of loving your neighbor,” she says. “But sometimes we have to go out of our homes and reach out to others. In the same spirit that our Blessed Mother went out and visited her cousin Elizabeth, we will be traveling to ‘visit’ and celebrate with family. We are practicing our Catholic faith through our Thanksgiving ‘visitation.’”

One particular way the Winkeljohn family encourages gratitude at Thanksgiving is through a practice they call the “Corn Kernel Tradition.”

“When the table is set, the children place three corn kernels beside each plate,” she explains. “After dinner has been served, we pass a basket and each person drops a kernel in and tells one thing they are thankful for.” The basket is ipassed around three times.

“Some of the things the kids say make you laugh,” she adds, “and some of the things bring tears to your eyes.”

In Writing

Allison Girone of Bear, Del., makes a point of writing down her blessings each year and encouraging her husband, Steve, and their three children to do the same.

“The moment Halloween is done I think of Thanksgiving,” she says. “I stop to think about who has made me most grateful during the year. I pick one person each year and take some reflective time to bless them back. I write a letter of thanks — not an e-mail but an old-fashioned letter that lets them know how and why we cherish them.”

Also, Girone sets up a small tree on the dining room table in her home. Throughout November, family members write their blessings on gold paper leaves and hang them on the tree, creating a visible representation of their gratitude.

Girone finds a natural expression of her Catholic faith in the Thanksgiving customs of recalling our blessings and offering thanks.

“We are lucky to be so well-fed in this country and to share the love of Christ,” she says. “We should recognize that more often. We should remember our past and the sacrifices of our ancestors. We, too, are called to carry a cross. As Christians, difficulties will befall us and we can meet those challenges with gratefulness for the ones and the One who came before us.”

Welcoming Jesus

On Thanksgiving morning, Robert and Nancy Poole of Basye, Va., will attend Mass with their three sons. Afterward, they will host a traditional family dinner in their home with an extra place setting at the table.

“Each year we set an extra place just for Jesus, to welcome him at our dinner table,” Nancy explains. “The children really enjoy this.”

Although her plans for dinner include roasting a turkey and preparing all the traditional side dishes, Poole does not lose sight of the important parts of her faith that she feels are bolstered by her observance of the holiday.

For example, she intends to discuss with her children the importance of being thankful for their faith. In particular, she wants them to understand the sacrifices others have made for their spiritual welfare, including the saints and martyrs. To reinforce this lesson, she is planning a special project where her children will paste holy cards of the saints on a set of praying hands.

“Thanksgiving has a special way of bringing loved ones together,” Poole says. “I think thankfulness is an important part of our faith because we must never lose our appreciation for what we have: our faith, our family and our freedom as Americans.”

Eucharistic Thanksgiving

“Catholics are very amenable to celebrate a day of thanks,” says Vincentian Father Oscar Lukefahr, director of Catholic Home Study Service in Perryville, Mo. “The word Eucharist means thanksgiving and we are a Eucharistic people. For us, every Mass is a thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday is a special day to remember the blessings God has given us as Catholics and as Americans.”

Father Lukefahr plans a special Mass on Thanksgiving morning and then an evening dinner with his brother's family. He believes that participation in traditional Thanksgiving observances can be a helpful way for Catholics to connect their faith more completely with family life.

“The key is connecting the Mass to Thanksgiving,” Father Lukefahr says. “Catholics should realize the importance of giving thanks every time they receive the Eucharist.”

“There should be something religious about a family getting together for Thanksgiving,” he adds. “As St. Paul tells us: ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God’” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Danielle Bean writes from Center Harbor, New Hampshire.