Celebrating Thanksgiving Like the First Immigrants
Countless souls have journeyed to the United States before and after her founding to call America home. Here, they embrace American customs and holidays, including the annual celebration of gratitude.
America the Beautiful includes “O beautiful for pilgrim feet,” a testament to the countless souls who have journeyed to the United States before and after her founding to call America home. Here, they embrace American customs and holidays, including the annual celebration of gratitude.
Bolivia and Colombia don’t have a Thanksgiving Day like the United States does. But after Adrian Garcia and his wife, Leonor, emigrated from Bolivia, he said, “We adjusted to the culture here and celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and relatives.”
That includes much more than the traditional turkey and mashed potatoes for a festive dinner.
Michael and Lucy Scotti met at a New Jersey university where she was studying on a student visa from Colombia. As they dated, he invited her to meet his parents at the family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
“I was so amazed and shocked by all the love they put into everything there,” Lucy remembers, “and when they gave thanks to God for all the abundance and the blessings, I was very impressed by that.”
Along with the turkey and the sweet potatoes, which Lucy had not seen before, there were also courses of lasagna, pasta, antipasto and more, since Michael’s parents had immigrated from Italy. “Everybody was so happy and in such a joyful mood; that was very touching to me,” Lucy said.
But Lucy and the Garcias also found more to be thankful for. So did the first immigrants to arrive in what was to be the United States — the Spaniards at St. Augustine, Florida, and the Puritans at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Coming to America, the English pilgrims gave thanks to the Almighty for his providence in the autumn of 1621, then officially proclaimed their second Thanksgiving in New England a day of prayer to thank God for delivering them from starvation and drought.
However, America’s actual first Thanksgiving took place 56 years earlier — on Sept. 8, 1565 — when 1,200 immigrant Spanish colonists and soldiers stepped ashore in what they named St. Augustine, Florida, to establish the first permanent colony in the New World.
Their first act was one of thanksgiving, led by the first person chosen to step ashore, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, the fleet chaplain.
“I took a cross and went to meet him [Capt. General Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles], singing the hymn Te Deum Laudamus (We Praise You God),” the priest later recorded. “The General, followed by all … marched up to the cross, knelt and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all that they saw done.” The new arrivals then celebrated a solemn Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it was her feast day, in thanksgiving for their safe arrival.
They were admirably anticipating what centuries later the Catechism (1360) would remind the faithful: “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, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving.’”
As Paragraph 1328 reiterates, “It is called Eucharist because it is an action of thanksgiving to God.”
After Mass, everyone, including the native people, joined together for a feast. Notably, the first Catholic parish in the future United States began on this day of thanksgiving.
Father Tom Willis, rector of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine, suggests that the faithful participate in parish Masses on Thanksgiving Day, which this year is Nov. 22. “In most places, Mass is scheduled in the morning hours, leaving the balance of the day to celebrate with family and friends,” he said. “Getting the day started off with the celebration of Mass connects the Lord’s Table with the table of our homes in a wonderful way.”
Lucy saw how the Scottis started Thanksgiving Day that way, celebrating in a way that also gave spiritual thanks to God for the abundance in the country.
The Garcia family’s Thanksgiving celebrations have a faith focus, too. “We definitely celebrate going to Mass every Thanksgiving,” explained Adrian Garcia. “That’s the best way to celebrate. The Mass liturgy itself is a thank-you for the Eucharist, for Christ having given his life for us and for his resurrection — all based on what we received from him.”
He added, “Whatever we have, we have to give thanks, because we could not have anything without God: our way of life, our children and grandchildren, so many good friends in St. Augustine.” Once residents of St. Augustine, they now reside in Virginia.
Gratitude and service are linked, says Father Willis. “Nothing shows that one has a grateful heart more than sharing with others, especially those most in need. If you can help on Thanksgiving Day to serve a holiday meal, by all means do so.”
At the same time, the rector’s experience is that, overall, immigrants “are extremely thankful to be in the United States, and it shows in their celebrations and prayers as they gather within their families and communities.” He added that, when addressing Congress in 2015, Pope Francis “noted that our country is a nation of immigrants. Here, people from all walks of life come from all over the world seeking a new life.”
“As Catholic Christians, we know that this new life comes only from Christ,” Father Willis said. “Our national holidays and celebrations can be opportunities to share that gift.”
Nor should anyone forget to be thankful the other 364 days. The Garcias remain thankful by going to Mass every day. Because “the Mass is the No. 1 way to give thanks to God, it’s a daily thanksgiving,” Adrian Garcia said. “You can’t stop one day and say, ‘Okay, God, see you next year.’”
The family also celebrates special occasions with Mass. Garcia said when their two children graduated, “We had a big reception and a Mass before the reception for the blessings we have received.”
The Scottis also are daily Massgoers. “That is the most beautiful gift to God, telling our heavenly Father, ‘Thank you’ for Our Lord Jesus Christ and for all the blessings in the Church,” explained Lucy.
That includes praying at perpetual adoration in their parish of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine, their Charismatic prayer group, the group they started to teach others about all the gifts God gives through the Church, and much more. “We are very grateful to God every day because he has blessed us in so many ways, spiritually, emotionally, in our marriage.”
Their thanks has led to “always trying to bring the light of Christ to others in our daily lives,” Lucy added.
St. Paul reminds the faithful today as he reminded the Thessalonians. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
As Father Willis sums up the holiday and beyond: “Thanksgiving is not just a day; it needs to be a regular way of life.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.