Thanksgiving Is America’s Most Religious Holiday

COMMENTARY: If we start to take the sentiment of this day more seriously, we will become more united as a country.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Thanksgiving is a religious holiday. It’s also a very Catholic religious holiday. Celebrate it with gusto!

But before historians, politicians and secularists get up in arms to blast my thesis, let me first explain what I mean by “religious” and “Catholic.”

The word “religion” has a few etymological origins. It has traces in the Latin verb relegare (“to send away or to give something up”). That’s where we get the word “relegate.” Religious people “give up” many things — whether it’s giving up other pursuits for prayer time or time to worship or via financial donations.

On that fourth Thursday of November, even moderate believers make efforts to put aside differences in order to be more peaceful and loving. Americans become more conscious of their neighbors by “giving up” their indifference to the poor by preparing give-away food baskets.

Even atheists “give up” time and energy to celebrate together (i.e., communion of persons) — giving up relaxation and replacing it with time spent for airline security and in traffic jams. On Thanksgiving, Americans may even pray before they eat their family meals. As such, Thanksgiving is truly “religious.” And that’s a good thing.

More appropriately, the word “religion” also comes from an understanding of the Latin verb religere, which means “to be bound together.” It evokes a sense of obligation, a pledge that unites us to something or someone.

On Thanksgiving, if we take the sentiment of this day more seriously, we become more united as a country. It’s a day that everyone can celebrate — together. Since it’s not a holiday based on a particular religious group, affiliation or identity, Americans show they are bound together by observing this day among all traditions. They become more united, i.e., more bound together, around a common table and a common meal.

The meal brings us into communion that’s almost “spiritual,” if the meal is done correctly. The meal becomes the “religious” experience that binds us to what we hold as common truth: If we don’t eat, we die. But if we eat Thanksgiving dinner alone, it’s like dying a slow death. This turkey dinner is almost analogous to our Spiritual Meal. We eat it with a community.

The Catholic part of Thanksgiving is rooted in the word itself — “thanksgiving.” Every Catholic should know the Greek word “Eucharist” mean “to give thanks.” At every Mass, we realize how religion is a true “offering up” of the Body and Blood of Christ. Mass “binds us together,” truly united in true communion.

Thankfully, at Mass, we celebrate food much better than turkey or even a “fatted calf.” Instead, we partake of the Lamb of God — Jesus — who takes away our sins.

In every Eucharist/Thanksgiving, we become a true community — a true religious family — bound together by God’s mercy.

Yes, people may quibble about how Thanksgiving is, in their view, a “nonreligious” holiday, but that would make them no different from a biblical lawyer, scribe or Pharisee, arguing over the letter of the law and forgetting the spirit of the law.

And let’s admit that Thanksgiving Day is a good day if we know the spirit that prompted Gov. William Bradford in 1621 to host a three-day celebration of the fruits of the harvest. That day, the pilgrims invited the Native-Americans to celebrate the harvest together. It sounds like Psalm 126, “We sow in tears but then reap with joy.” And sharing with our native brothers and sisters sounds like the governor was listening to Jesus, or at least a more properly formed conscious, reminding us of the question, “Who is our neighbor?” (Luke 10:25).

Thanksgiving scrooges may even try to remind me that the Thanksgiving Day proclamation by George Washington Nov. 26, 1789, was a holiday to give thanks for the Constitution — and therefore we shouldn’t make it a “religious holiday.”

But even Washington’s act is a “religious” one because he’s celebrating the document with a preamble that recognizes a higher power that helps us to form a more perfect union — a country based on the “Blessings (capital ‘B’) of Liberty.” This sounds much like Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, reminding us of his role as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to “set us free!”

And we should all know that Thanksgiving, officially established by President Abraham Lincoln Oct. 3, 1863, was a “religiously inspired” proclamation. In an almost-sermon-like manner, Lincoln, prophetically recognizing that our hearts need to be softened and our minds need reminding of our blessing, evoked a need to create a “feast day.” In the proclamation, and speaking of people who make great sacrifice for America’s values, Lincoln wrote:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

After reading, or better yet, meditating on this presidential proclamation, I’m not sure how anyone can argue that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. Most certainly, Lincoln wasn’t condoning one religion over another. We know he wasn’t Catholic. But I believe that Thanksgiving is a holiday and feast day that can make us all a bit more religious, better Catholics, better Americans and better people.

This special day, graced with a desire to become more grateful, offers an abundance of religious and spiritual encouragement. It’s a day to remember that blessings are not just found on the table, but are, more importantly, found in the people around it. It’s a day to pray, to share and to love — and a day to remember we need to try harder to live this celebration, in word and in deed.

For me, after offering the Eucharist — Communion with God — I can’t wait to share that communion with God’s people around another blessed altar: the dinner table.

Father Leo Patalinghug is a TV and radio host, best-selling author and founder of

 Grace Before Meals and The Table Foundation



Cooking With Father Leo: A Drama-Free Thanksgiving Dinner

In my video series, “Cooking for One,” I provide a recipe for people who may not have the opportunity to visit family or may be far away from their friends. But they can still savor the flavors of the feast day with a drama-free Thanksgiving dinner to share with a friend. Without fuss, this recipe for a Thanksgiving Day meal, gives all the flavors without feeling overwhelmed by the prep, mess and expenses.

Thanksgiving for Two (in case you’re far from family and friends)


     •         Bacon-wrapped turkey breast

     •         Mashed potatoes

     •         Brussel sprouts & cranberry crumble


Shopping List:

  • Salt and pepper
  • Butter
  • Garlic powder
  • Boneless and skinless turkey breast
  • Bacon (6-8 slices)
  • Russet potatoes (1-2 lbs., peeled and cubed)
  • Brussel sprouts (10-15)
  • Italian bread crumbs (1/4 cup)
  • Dried cranberries (1/2 cup)
  • Chicken broth (2 cups)



  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Line baking rack with aluminum foil.
  • Place cookie rack on top of baking rack.
  • Peel 1 large russet potato and dice
  • Place potato in small soup pan and add cold water; then add salt and cook over medium heat.
  • Trim and quarter Brussel sprouts; set aside in bowl.


Turkey Breast


  • 1 to 1 1/2 lb. boneless and skinless turkey breast
  • 6 to 8 slices of bacon
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. pepper
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder



  • Lay slices of bacon on prepared baking tray.
  • Place turkey breast on top of bacon and season liberally with salt, pepper and garlic powder on all sides.
  • Wrap bacon tightly around turkey breast and place in the center of cooking rack.
  • Place turkey into preheated oven and cook until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees and bacon is crispy (cooked approximately 40 minutes to one hour, depending on size of the turkey breast).
  • Remove from oven when done and let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.


Brussel Sprouts and Cranberry Crumble


  • Brussel sprouts
  • Dried cranberries
  • Butter
  • Italian bread crumbs



  • Place 1 Tbsp. of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until it begins to brown.
  • Place 1 1/2 cups of trimmed and quartered Brussels sprouts in butter.
  • Season with 1 tsp. of salt, 1 tsp. pepper and 1 tsp. garlic powder.
  • Sauté until slightly brown, approximately three to four minutes, over medium heat.
  • Add 1/4 cup dried cranberries.
  • Add 2 Tbsp. of water, then 1/4 cup of Italian bread crumbs; let cook until brown.
  • May garnish with rest of cranberries.


Mashed Potato


  • Russet potatoes
  • Butter
  • Chicken broth
  • Salt and pepper



  • Put potatoes in cold water so that they are covered by at least 2 inches of water. Turn on heat to medium high and cook until potatoes are soft and slide off a fork.
  • Remove potatoes from stovetop when fork-tender and drain, reserving some hot water.
  • Place 2 Tbsp. of butter into separate bowl.
  • Remove hot potatoes with slotted spoon and place on top of butter.
  • Add 1 Tbsp. of starchy hot water and season with 2 tsp. of salt and 1 tsp. of pepper.
  • Warm 1 cup of chicken broth in microwave.
  • Whisk and mash potatoes, adding 2 Tbsp. of broth at a time until desire consistency is reached.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Maybe add another tablespoon of butter for extra creaminess.