The Catholic Tradition of Harvest Feasts of Thanksgiving
While many Americans are pondering what to do with the leftovers of their Thanksgiving feast, I am taking some time pondering the custom of thanksgiving to God and our Thanksgiving holiday. I’m not ready to get into Christmas preparations! I have heard some Catholics express reservations in celebrating a “secular” holiday. Why should we celebrate Thanksgiving when it was started by Protestant Puritans? There is seemingly no liturgical or Catholic tradition within this American Thanksgiving.
It is true that the historical origins in America are not inherently “liturgical” or Catholic, that doesn’t mean it isn’t proper and right to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is in the natural movement of the soul of man to thank God for our blessings. And it is in the Catholic tradition to celebrate a harvest feast of thanksgiving.
Fulfilling a Basic Obligation
I attended eight years of Catholic parochial school, and one of my highlights was the classroom visits by the parish priests. One visit I particularly remember was by our pastor Father Browning, S.J. during which he explained the acronym “TRAP” to describe the four parts of worship to God: thanksgiving, reparation, adoration and petition. (It is most often referred by the acronym ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication.) Thanksgiving must be a part of worship to God. Father Francis Weiser, S.J., in the chapter on Thanksgiving in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, elaborates how the act of thanksgiving flows naturally within man:
The religious function of giving thanks to Divinity for favors received is as old as humanity. In fact, it is one of the basic elements of worship in all religions, flowing directly from the moral law of nature which governs the relation of man to God and attaches a fourfold purpose to the acts of worship: adoration, petition, atonement, thanksgiving. Thus we find sacrifices and thanksgiving rites as far back as we have documentary and archaeological evidence on the purpose of any forms of worship.
Then he illustrates how Jews in the Old Testament tradition practiced rituals of thanksgiving and sacrifices to God:
The Jews in the Old Testament had an elaborate ritual of sacrifices and offerings in thanksgiving to God. The details of these thank offerings are prescribed in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 1, 2, 3, 7, etc.). They were either private acts of thanksgiving on the part of individuals or public acts of worship offered in the name of the whole community. The gifts offered consisted of Thanksgiving the sacrifice of animals or the presentation of ritual loaves cakes, and wafers.
Jesus offering Himself is the supreme and complete sacrifice, replacing the Old Law rituals. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving; the Mass is the ultimate thanksgiving.
In the New Testament, also, the Sacrifice of the Mass contains the same fourfold purpose prescribed by natural law. The function of thanksgiving has never been overlooked. The early Christians were so much aware of it that they called the Blessed Sacrament, which is offered in the Mass, Eucharist (thanksgiving)
Due to the fact that the Holy Sacrifice is the greatest act of thanksgiving that could possibly be offered to God, the Church has refrained from instituting any special feast or liturgical ceremony of thanksgiving other than the Mass. In the Catholic Church, liturgically speaking, every day of the year is “Thanksgiving Day.”
So as Catholics, liturgically speaking, our need for Thanksgiving to God is completely fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass. But that doesn’t eliminate our duty to other forms of thanksgiving in our daily lives.
Is Thanksgiving a Religious Holiday?
The act of thanksgiving to God and to others is normal and natural. But is the American Thanksgiving a religious holiday or contain religious aspects? Father William P. Saunders in 2004 addressed this question in his article, Is Thanksgiving a Religious Holiday? He makes an excellent point about how the Puritans would have been steeped in the Biblical tradition and been very familiar with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, and also finding parallels in their journey to a new land similar to the Exodus of the Israelites. Father Francis Weiser, S.J. expanded that Moses actually prescribed two harvest feasts of thanksgiving: “the Feast of the Spring Harvest (Hag Shavuoth, Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost; Leviticus 23, 15-21) and the Feast of the Fall Harvest (Sukkoth, Feast of Tabernacles; Leviticus 29-43) (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1952).”
We do not need to be apologetic when reserving some time to be thankful to God for the blessings He has bestowed on us. Celebrating with family and friends and food is using those gifts in a wholesome response. And Thanksgiving in the USA is liturgically incorporated. Thanksgiving is included in our US Proper Calendar as an Optional Memorial, and there are suggested readings and propers for Thanksgiving Mass. I included that information and also a printable Table Prayer of Blessing for Thanksgiving in my previous post: Prayers of Thanksgiving for Thanksgiving Day.
The Catholic Tradition of Harvest Feasts of Thanksgiving
The High Middle Ages (approximately 1000 to 1250 A.D.) marked the beginning of harvest feasts of thanksgiving with Catholic nations. These festivals were attached to particular saint or feast days. Not all days were celebrated everywhere, but they would vary in different countries throughout the liturgical year. Each date links to the CatholicCulture.org page on which the sidebar provides further information in the sections of Activities, Prayers, Recipes, etc. for the feast day:
- St. Peter in Chains, or Lammas or Loaf-Mass Day, August 1 in the 1962 Extraordinary Form calendar—Lammas is Anglo-Saxon origin, celebrating the first fruits of the summer wheat or grain harvest in the northern English speaking countries of Europe. The Roman Ritual included a Blessing of the Harvest to use on this feast or the Transfiguration.
- Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6—This feast corresponds with the Jewish feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Both in Eastern churches and in Rome have the blessing of grapes, raisins and other fruits, wine and also blessing and incorporating the wheat grains in the celebration, particularly wheat pilaf. For more information, see my two previous commentaries on the Transfiguration.
- Feast of the Assumption, August 15—In many Germanic countries this is thanksgiving harvest for first fruits, herbs and flowers, with the Roman Ritual including a Blessing of Fruits and Herbs for this feast. For more information, see my post on the Assumption.
- Feast of St. Bartholomew, August 24—Because St. Bartholomew is the patron of shepherds and husbandmen, in Britain this was another harvest feast for shepherds and farmers. Lamb and mutton are the traditional foods for this feast.
- Feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8—For certain regions like Goa, this feast marked the end of the summer harvest. The Roman Ritual included a blessing of seeds and seedlings for the fall planting. In France the winegrowers brought grapes to be blessed and called this feast “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” In the Austrian Alps this was “Drive-Down Day,” bringing herds of cattle and sheep from their summer pastures. After the work, the thanksgiving festivities would begin.
- Feast of St. Michael or Michaelmas, September 29—In England this was a “quarter day” and huge harvest feast, with a roasted goose as the centerpiece.
- Solemnity of All Saints, November 1—All Saints’ Day was originally on May 13 in Rome, but the feast day was transferred to November 1, right at the time of harvest to provide food for the pilgrims traveling to Rome. I wouldn’t say this was an official harvest feast, but the timing was around the harvest. I have also included it because of Father Joseph Minihan’s article: The Church’s Thanksgiving Day.
- Feast of St. Martin or Martinmas, November 11—For most of the European continent Martinmas was the biggest and final fall harvest feast. The festivities were especially for the wine harvest and the great winter slaughters of animals. The feasting usually centered around a Martinmas goose accompanied with apples. Advent used to be 40 days in length, beginning a few days after St. Martin’s. There were more strenuous requirements of fasting and abstinence, so Martinmas would also be a celebration to use up fats and meats in preparation for Advent, similar to Fat Tuesday before Lent. See my previous post, Feastday Highlights: 11-11, Honoring the Real St. Martin of Tours.
- Feast of St. Leopold, November 15—Most of Austria would wait for their fall harvest feast until St. Leopold’s day, as he is the patron saint of Austria. Today was also referred to as “Goose Day” in Austria.
- Feast of St. Andrew, November 30—In Britain also known as “Andermess,” this marks the end of autumn and the last harvest feast. In later centuries when Advent was shortened, November 30 marked the beginning of the Advent season. See more information in my previous post, Anticipating Christmas, Beginning with St. Andrew.
Depending on the country, time of year, saint of the day and what kind of harvest would determine the type of thanksgiving festival thanking God for His blessings. Martinmas and Michaelmas are probably the most well-known and larger of the feasts, but each has a distinctive “flavor.” What impressed me while I was compiling this list is that truly it is within the Catholic tradition to celebrate a Thanksgiving feast. And I do wonder if the original Puritans were in some way imitating this rich Catholic tradition.
In addition to festivals of thanksgiving, the Church also has quarterly Ember Days set aside to ask for God’s blessing upon mankind, and to pray in gratitude for the blessings of nature, particularly those used by the Church in her Liturgy, such as olives, grapes, and wheat. These days are marked with prayer, fasting and abstinence and stress spiritual renewal. See Contemporary Observation of Ember Days for more information.
We should not hesitate to celebrate Thanksgiving with food and family even because the seemingly “secular” holiday is really not. Thanksgiving to God is a right inclination within man and has a deep religious and Catholic tradition. It might not be a Martinmas goose, but our Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing can an act of thanksgiving to God.
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