When was the first Thanksgiving, and where was it celebrated? Ask any fifth- or sixth-grader that question, and he or she will probably respond by saying, “1621, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.”
However, according to Michael Gannon, that’s actually not when the first Thanksgiving meal involving European explorers and Native Americans took place in what would eventually become the United States of America. According to Gannon (1927-2017), a former professor of history at the University of Florida, who was known to many as the “dean of Florida historians,” a Thanksgiving meal involving explorers and Native Americans took place in 1565 (56 years before the Pilgrims’ meal) when a group of Spanish Catholic colonists stepped ashore in what is now St. Augustine, Florida.
It all happened on September 8. Here’s how the story was told in an article by Catholic journalist Joseph Pronechen:
“On September 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, captain general of the Indies fleet under King Philip, stepped ashore with 1,200 colonists and soldiers to found St. Augustine.
It was the fleet chaplain, Father Francisco Lopes de Mendoza Grajales, who first set foot in the sand. Thus honored, he welcomed the captain ashore.
The priest later recorded the moment, “I took a cross and went to meet him, singing ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ [We Praise You God]. The General, followed by all, marched up to the cross, knelt, and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all that they saw done.”
The company celebrated a solemn Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Sept. 8 feast in thanksgiving for safe travels. The native Timucua Indians again watched intently.
Following the Mass, the Spaniards and Native Americans ate together. “It was clearly a thanksgiving feast,” says [Professor] Gannon, “the likes of which would not be seen again for 56 years.”
Now, unfortunately — at least for those of us who like turkey — that particular item was not on the menu for the feast. Instead, the colonists and Native Americans probably ate something called “cocido”— a stew made from salted pork, garbanzo beans and garlic.
Most of us would probably prefer to stick with turkey.
But what’s really important here is the fact that the very first Thanksgiving on American soil began with a Mass. From a Catholic perspective this was most appropriate, since, as the Catechism tells us, “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all, ‘thanksgiving.’
This means that those who make the effort to attend Holy Mass on the fourth Thursday of November every year are actually observing the oldest Thanksgiving tradition in the country — a tradition that predates the Pilgrims by almost 60 years!
A tradition, believe it or not, that’s even more important than football.