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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Catholic Roots of Thanksgiving

The Catholic Roots of Thanksgiving

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In just a couple of weeks we will be celebrating Thanksgiving.  Most people know the history of the holiday, from the first Thanksgiving celebration with the Pilgrims and American Indians, to its official proclamation as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

But many people don’t know that our modern holiday of Thanksgiving actually has roots firmly planted in Catholic history.  Besides Veterans Day, November 11 is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours.  Martin was a fourth century pagan soldier who once saw a poor beggar freezing in the cold.  He cut his own heavy cloak (meant to keep himself warm) in half and gave half to the beggar.  That night he had a vision of Christ Himself wearing the cloak.  Martin left the army, converted his family, and moved to Gaul to live a monastic life, where he was eventually made the bishop of Tours.

In medieval Europe it was customary to celebrate St. Martin’s feast day by having a Thanksgiving feast, thanking God for the harvest.  This custom survived in Protestant communities even after the time of the Reformation, and was one the Pilgrims brought with them to the New World.

So it is not surprising that they chose to offer thanks with their Native American friends that first Thanksgiving with a feast similar to that which they held back home.

There have been a few minor changes, of course, the most obvious of which is the date.  Also, the Thanksgiving feast celebrated on Martinmas featured goose as the customary main dish.  The Pilgrims did in fact celebrate that first Thanksgiving with goose, along with some of the abundant wild turkey they had hunted.  In America, of course, the turkey has wrestled control of the holiday away from the goose (not that many geese are likely to complain).

So as we prepare for Thanksgiving this year, it is nice to remember that it truly is a Catholic holiday, and perhaps we can ask the prayers of St. Martin, without whom we may never have had this annual over-stuffed, football-frenzied day of grace.