Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turkeys and Pilgrims and Pie, oh my!

I confess I've never liked Thanksgiving much. My childhood memories are for the most part neutral to very bad, with long drives in traffic and family tragedies thrown in for good measure.

As an adult my love for the holiday has not increased. For one thing, it is billed as a celebration of religious freedom, when in fact, the puritans were about the most religiously intolerant group around at the time. My impressions of puritanism are more about scarlet letters and witch trials than of friendship and tolerance.

But last year I came across something interesting that I'd like to share with you. The first thanksgiving in the land that was to become the Unites States didn't happen in Plymouht, Massachusetts in 1621. There were at least two "First Thanksgivings" that preceded it. In 1598 a Thanksgiving celebration was held in Texas.
The American History books we studied as youth pretend that Colonial American History is exclusively what happened in the 13 New England colonies. This ignores an enormous part of reality - our Catholic History. Little attention is paid to the epic northward advance by Spanish pioneers into the southern tier of States reaching from Florida across Texas and New Mexico to California, today called the Spanish Borderlands.

On January 26, 1598, a Spanish expedition set out from Mexico with the aim of founding a new kingdom. Three months later, after a long, dangerous trek forging a new trail northward, the now famous El Camino Real [The Royal Road], it crossed the Rio Grande and set up camp south of present day El Paso, Texas. On April 30, a Mass of thanksgiving was said, and the valiant leader of the expedition. Don Juan de OƱate, took formal possession of the new land, called New Mexico, in the name of the Heavenly Lord, God Almighty, and the earthly lord King Philip II.

Then, after the Mass, the Franciscan priests blessed the food on tables abundant with fish, ducks and geese, and the 600-strong expedition of soldiers and colonists feasted. The celebration ended with a play enacting scenes of the native Indians hearing the first words of the Catholic Faith and receiving the Sacrament of Baptism.

I think that this celebration in El Paso has far more right to be called the first American Thanksgiving than the one celebrated by the Puritans in New England. Actually, the lands in both colonies – New England and New Mexico - were not American at that time. For a short while, New England could claim that theirs was our first thanksgiving feast, but the moment Texas entered the Union as a part of the American federation, this priority of the Puritan celebration can be contested.
But there is an even earlier contender. On September 8, 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida a Thanksgiving celebration was held and also included a Catholic mass.
This is where Spanish Adm. Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore on Sept. 8, 1565. This is where he, 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, 100 civilian families and artisans, and the Timucuan Indians who occupied the village of Seloy gathered at a makeshift altar and said the first Christian Mass. And afterward, this is where they held the first Thanksgiving feast.

The Timucuans brought oysters and giant clams. The Spaniards carried from their ships garbanzo beans, olive oil, bread, pork and wine.

Eric Johnson, director of the Mission of Nombre de Dios and Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche -- the site at which Menendez landed -- doesn't expect Americans to change their Thanksgiving traditions that are shaped around the Pilgrims' feast. But he, like other Florida historians, would like folks to recognize that the stories they learned in grade school -- the stories presented in textbooks today -- are wrong.

It all happened in this bucolic 300-acre Catholic mission and shrine that offers a quiet respite amid the frenetic tourist activity of St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the United States. A replica of the Rustic Altar sits next to the shore in the general area where archaeologists believe the Mass took place.

Michael Gannon, former director of the mission and University of Florida distinguished service emeritus professor of history, presented the celebration in his meticulously researched book, "The Cross in the Sand," in 1965 and has argued that this feast should be recognized as the first Thanksgiving.
So perhaps Thanksgiving should be considered a Catholic holiday rather than the secular gorge-fest it has become. Another bit of trivia. Squanto, the Indian who helped the settlers at Plymouth survive, was a baptized Catholic. who knew? Certainly your history teacher won't tell you.

Also see "The Catholic Origins of Thanksgiving" at the Canterbury Tales blog and "America's Real First Thanksgiving" by Robyn Gioia.

So Bah! Humbug! - er I mean have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving.


You should go find the nearest wishbone and pull on that thang. ;-)

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