Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic Activity: Celebrating Thanksgiving: Feasts and Customs



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The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J. is a wonderful resource

"written to explain the origin, history, development, and observance of our Christian feasts throughout the "Year of the Lord." In addition to the liturgical aspect of these feasts, their celebration in folklore is also presented. The radiation of liturgy has created many symbols, customs, and traditions that have enriched the observance of festive days and seasons in home and community, and remnants of pre-Christian lore have, in most cases, assumed new meanings and motivations through the influence of liturgical thought and celebration.

Classified within the vast field of knowledge, this book presents a compendium of heortology, the historical science that explains the origin and meaning of feasts. The word "heortology" is derived from the Greek heorte (feast) and logos (discourse). This work, then, is primarily intended as a historical explanation of general interest and as a source book of information.

His chapter on Thanksgiving covers the Christian origin of harvest feasts of thanksgiving, Jewish Festivals and the American holiday of Thanksgiving.



THANKSGIVING RITES — 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.

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.

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."

SPECIAL OCCASIONS — There is, however, the psychological need of special manifestations of thanksgiving for the people on certain occasions. In such cases, as at the end of an epidemic, or liberation from a threatened disaster, or signing of a peace treaty, great celebrations of thanksgiving have been held since medieval times. As far as their religious significance is concerned, they consist either in a Mass of thanksgiving celebrated with unusual splendor and solemnity or in a service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of such services it is customary to recite or sing the ancient (fourth-century) hymn Te Deum Laudamus (God, we praise Thee), and to add the liturgical Mass prayer of thanksgiving.

A free translation in the vernacular, "Holy God, we praise Thy name," is often sung on such occasions. The English text is a translation from the German. The author of this hymn was Johann Franz (1790), and the tune is taken from a cantata of K. Bone (1852):

Holy God, we praise thy name,
Lord of all, we bow before thee;
All on earth thy sceptre claim,
All in Heav'n above adore thee.
Infinite thy vast domain,
Everlasting is thy reign.


PRE-CHRISTIAN FEATURES — One special, and yearly, thanksgiving celebration going back to ancient times took place at the successful conclusion of the harvest. That is why we find harvest festivals with thanksgiving rites everywhere as far back as we can go in our knowledge of religions and cultures. Among the Indo-European races it was the great "Mother of Grains" to whom these rites were addressed. Within the various ancient nations this common mythological Mother of Fields was represented as a national god or goddess of vegetation (Astarte, Osiris, Tammuz, Demeter, Ceres). Great festivals were held every year in their honor in thanksgiving for the harvest. The most famous of all these feasts were the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece, held every September as a tribute to the grain goddess Demeter.

Among the Slavic, Germanic, and Celtic races the ancient belief in the great Mother of Grains has persisted to our day in the form of many superstitious practices connected with fall harvesting, especially with the "last sheaf" in every field. Sometimes the sheaf is personified, molded into the form of a straw doll and, as "harvest baby," carried in joyful procession from the field to the village. In Austria it is shaped into a wreath and placed on the head of a girl who then is designated at the harvest festival as "queen" or "bride" (Erntebraut). Similar customs were universally practiced in England, where the last load brought home with great rejoicing bore the name "horkey cart," and in Scotland, where the last sheaf is called "kirn [grain] doll."

In northern France harvesters, seated on top of the last load brought home from the fields, chant an ancient traditional tune to the text Kyre-o-ôle. This is an interesting relic of folklore from Carolingian times, when shepherds and field workers cheered their solitary toil by singing the Kyrie eleison as they had heard the monks sing it at High Mass. In southern France the last sheaf was tied in the form of a cross, decorated with ribbons and flowers, and after the harvest celebration was placed in the best room of the house to be kept as a token of blessing and good fortune.

JEWISH CELEBRATIONS — Moses instituted among the Jews two great religious feasts of thanksgiving for the harvest: 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):

Thou shalt celebrate the festival of weeks to the Lord thy God, a voluntary oblation of thy hand which thou shalt offer according to the blessing of the Lord thy God. And thou shalt feast before the Lord thy God, thou and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger and the fatherless, and the widow, who abide with you in the place... (Deuteronomy 16, 9-11).

Thou also shalt celebrate the solemnity of tabernacles seven days, when thou hast gathered in thy fruit of the barnfloor and of the winepress. And thou shalt make merry in thy festival time, thou, thy son, and thy daughter, thy manservant, and thy maidservant, the Levite also and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow that are within thy gates (Deuteronomy 16, 13-15).

CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS — In the Christian era the custom of celebrating a thanksgiving harvest festival began in the High Middle Ages. For lack of any definite liturgical day or ceremony prescribed by the Church, various practices came to be observed locally. In many places, as in Hungary, the Feast of the Assumption included great thanksgiving solemnities for the grain harvest. Delegates from all parts of the country came for the solemn procession to Budapest, carrying the best samples of their produce. A similar ceremony was observed in Poland, where harvest wreaths brought to Warsaw from all sections were bestowed on the president in a colorful pageant. These wreaths (wieniec), made up of the straw of the last sheaf (broda), were beautifully decorated with flowers, apples, nuts, and ribbons, and blessed in churches by the priests.

The most common, and almost universal, harvest and thanksgiving celebration in medieval times was held on the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours (Martinmas) on November 11. It was a holiday in Germany, France, Holland, England, and in central Europe. People first went to Mass and observed the rest of the day with games, dances, parades, and a festive dinner, the main feature of the meal being the traditional roast goose (Martin's goose). With the goose dinner they drank "Saint Martin's wine," which was the first lot of wine made from the grapes of the recent harvest. Martinmas was the festival commemorating filled barns and stocked larders, the actual Thanksgiving Day of the Middle Ages. Even today it is still kept in rural sections of Europe, and dinner on Martin's Day would be unthinkable without the golden-brown, luscious Martin's goose.


PILGRIMS' CELEBRATION — The tradition of eating goose as part of the Martin's Day celebration was kept in Holland even after the Reformation. It was there that the Pilgrims who sailed to the New World in 1620 became familiar with this ancient harvest festival. When, after one year in America, they decided to celebrate a three days' thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621, they went in search of geese for their feast. We know that they also had deer (a present from the Indians), lobsters, oysters, and fish. But Edward Winslow, in his account of the feast, only mentions that "Governor Bradford sent foure men on fowling that so we might after a more speciall manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours." They actually did find some wild geese, but a number of wild turkeys and ducks as well.

The Pilgrim Fathers, therefore, in serving wild turkeys with the geese, inaugurated one of the most cherished American traditions: the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day. They also drank, according to the ancient European tradition, the first wine of their wild-grape harvest. Pumpkin pie and cranberries were not part of the first Thanksgiving dinner in America, but were introduced many years afterward.

The second Thanksgiving Day in the New World was held by the Pilgrims two years later, on July 30, 1623. It was formally proclaimed by the governor as a day of prayer to thank God for their deliverance from drought and starvation, and for the safe arrival from Holland of the ship Anne.

NATIONAL CELEBRATION — In 1665 Connecticut proclaimed a solemn day of thanksgiving to be kept annually on the last Wednesday in October. Other New England colonies held occasional and local Thanksgivings at various times. In 1789 the federal Congress authorized and requested President George Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving for the whole nation. Washington did this in a message setting aside November 26, 1789 as National Thanksgiving Day.

After 1789 the celebration reverted to local and regional observance for almost a hundred years. There grew, however, a strong desire among the majority of the people for a national Thanksgiving Day that would unite all Americans in a festival of gratitude and public acknowledgment for all the blessings God had conferred upon the nation. It was not until October 3, 1863, that this was accomplished, when President Abraham Lincoln issued, in the midst of the Civil War, a Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it the last Thursday of November was set apart for that purpose and made a national holiday.

Since then, every president has followed Lincoln's example, and annually proclaims as a "Day of Thanksgiving" the fourth Thursday in November. Only President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date, in 1939, from the fourth to the third Thursday of November (to extend the time of Christmas sales). This caused so much consternation and protest that in 1941 the traditional date was restored.

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958