Long before the Pilgrims celebrated what was thought to be America’s first Thanksgiving holiday, Spanish settlers near St. Augustine, Florida, held a religious service to thank God for the safe arrival of the Spanish fleet. The date was September 8, 1565, and the Catholic Mass was followed by a feast, to which a local tribe was invited.
That was more than half a century before the Pilgrims’ harvest festival in 1621.
Although there has always been a strong religious element to the American civic holiday of Thanksgiving, the focus has always been primarily on the meal of the day. For many Americans, imitating the early Spanish settlers of Florida in their attendance at Mass gives the day a rich meaning. Catholics and those of several other denominations give special thanks to God through the Eucharist.
That word, in fact, comes from the Greek for “giving thanks.”
The Greek words eucharistein and eulogein recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim — especially during a meal — God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It’s been pointed out in these pages that in the original Greek version of the Gospels, Jesus is recorded using a similar word while celebrating the Last Supper. In Luke, we read: “Take this, and divide it among yourselves… And he took bread, and when he had given thanks [εὐχαριστήσας – eucharistēsas] he broke it and gave it to them.”
The Roman Catholic Mass does not neglect to give thanks, but the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, celebrated by Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches, is replete with expressions of thanksgiving.
For many of the faithful, too, there is a period of Thanksgiving after Mass, private devotions or contemplation offered after the final dismissal. It’s not surprising, then, that adherents to these Churches are known as Eucharistic people.