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Catholic Activity: Thanksgiving Day

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In America, the fourth Thursday in November is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day. On this day Americans give thanks to God for all the blessings they have received from Him. Feast Day Cookbook explains the origins of this feast, including the story of the original Thanksgiving feast, and provides many recipes: Indian Pudding, Oysters Rockefeller, Roast Turkey, Wild Rice Stuffing, Cranberry ice, and Marlborough Pudding.

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Most of the feast days celebrated in the United States were brought to our country with the traditions of older lands. But of the festivals which belong entirely to us, one is Thanksgiving.

In 1620 when the Mayflower Pilgrims left their ship at Plymouth, they hastened first of all to give thanks to God for their preservation from the perils of the sea. Then they set to work to build a few houses and to sow wheat and barley and peas, helped in their task by friendly Indians who taught them how to use the native fruits and vegetables, the venison and wild fowl, and the many varieties of fish and shellfish which abounded in the coastal waters. One year later, after incredible hardships and the death of many of their number, the Pilgrims again gave thanks, this time for the harvest they had planted and which God had blessed for them.

This idea of giving thanks to God when the harvest is in is, of course, a very ancient custom. Moses commanded the Hebrews to celebrate a harvest festival, and it is still known as Succoth, or the Ingathering, and still celebrated. There were festivals in ancient Greece in honor of Demeter, goddess of the fields, and of Ceres in ancient Rome. The English Harvest Home is also very old.

But all these celebrated plenty, the plenty of years, and the result of years of cultivation of the land. Here in America, settled only briefly on an inhospitable coast and with but a single year of growth behind them, the Pilgrims gave thanks not for the old but for the new, not for the plenty of centuries but for the hard-earned, scanty yield of one year in a strange land.

The first Thanksgiving feast did not lack for guests; in fact, there were many more than the hosts had expected. Massasoit, the Indian chief who had shown much interest in the struggling band from overseas, was invited to the feast and told to bring some of his braves. He appeared accompanied by ninety warriors! The hosts welcomed them as hosts should, even though the unexpected number of guests cut deeply into their supplies laid aside for the coming winter.

The Indians brought gifts for the feast — five deer, quantities of lobsters and eels and wild turkeys. We are told there were very few to prepare this feast for one hundred and forty men. Five women and a few young girls were all that remained of the women who had come on the Mayflower, and this small band prepared the food for three days of feasting.

Among the dishes was one which the Indians had taught the English women to make, called in the Indian tongue sauquetash, from which comes the modern succotash. But the Indian dish was very different from what we understand by that name today. It was more like a soup and an old recipe tells us that it contained two fowl and, in a separate kettle, one-half pound of lean pork and two quarts of white beans. To the kettle containing the fowl were added pieces of corned beef, a turnip, six potatoes. When the meat was tender, it was removed and the two "waters" mixed together. Then four quarts of hulled corn were boiled till tender and added to the soup and the meat of one fowl cut up. The other fowl was served as a separate course with the corned beef and the pork.

There were even desserts at the feast — dried gooseberries and cherries and cranberries, cured by the Indian method. These berries were cooked in "dough cases" — no doubt the Pilgrim equivalent of pies. There was Indian pudding, made of corn meal and molasses boiled in a bag. We suggest a modern version.

And the Indians gave the white children their first taste of popcorn which they had made into balls with maple syrup.

In later years these feasts grew less rugged and more varied. A letter of 1779 tells of the Thanksgiving feast of that year in a well-to-do home venison at one end of the long table, at the other chines of pork and roasted turkeys, and set between them pigeon pasties. And that year this household had "sellery" for the first time. There are mentioned also two oranges on the table, a very unusual fruit for that day in New England, and these were given to the two grandmothers of the family.

In 1789 the Congress of the United States suggested making legal a day of thanksgiving for signal favors from Almighty God, who had afforded the nation an opportunity "peaceably to establish a constitution of government for their safety and happiness." President Washington liked the idea and issued a proclamation to this effect. But after his death this special action was allowed to lapse, although the private custom of celebrating Thanksgiving remained popular.

Some sixty years later Mrs. Josepha Hale began campaigning to revive the custom of a national Thanksgiving. In 1846, she became editor of Godey's Lady's Book and used the pages of her famous magazine to foster this purpose. She argued not only with words but with recipes, some of which seem very heavy argument — she suggested "ham soaked in cider for three weeks, stuffed with sweet potatoes and baked in maple syrup," a prescription of rather overwhelming caloric strength.

Even the Civil War did not stop her efforts, and somehow she prevailed, for in 1863, in the very midst of the conflict, President Lincoln issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation since that of Washington, inviting all his fellow citizens, "and those also at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands," to set apart and observe the day "as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

Since that day, each year the President of the United States issues the proclamation which invites the nation to give thanks for its progress under God and to enjoy the fruits of the earth which God has given them.

A very good modern Thanksgiving dinner can be planned using the same foods which were eaten by those who sat at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth. We suggest that it might include Oysters Rockefeller, turkey with a wild rice stuffing, cranberry ice, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

And, in memory of the land from which the Pilgrims came, we recommend a dish, Marlborough Pudding, which New England inherited from the parent England.

Activity Source: Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, David McKay Company, Inc., New York, 1951

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