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Thanksgiving is a great, uniquely American holiday. Strictly speaking, Thanksgiving is not a Church holiday, but it should be! What's wrong with putting one day aside in the course of the year just to offer thanks to God for everything?
Thanksgiving is a day where we should all say, "Thank you, God, for giving us life, for giving us our sustenance, for giving us our nation and our Church, for giving us our family and friends."
In fact, did you know that the first Thanksgiving was Catholic? While the stories we've all grown up hearing about Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims are celebrated with much fanfare, it wasn't the first time a communal celebration to give thanks for God's bounty was held in the New World.
The very first communal Thanksgiving celebration on American soil was held in 1565 in the oldest settlement in the United States — St. Augustine, Florida. In fact, even the word "thanksgiving" has its roots in our Faith, deriving from the Greek word eucharistein. If that word has a familiar ring, it should, because it's linked to an encounter we have with Our Lord every time we go to Mass! Read more about that here. Go ahead — astound your family and friends with this broad view of history.
So because giving thanks is so central to our history and our Faith, before you enjoy your feast, go to Mass and give God the praise that is His due as our creator and Lord of all.
As a child, Thanksgiving was big in my family. My parents made Thanksgiving a pilgrimage of sorts every year, making the 400-mile trip every fall to our family's farm in Michigan's northern countryside. This end-of-fall holiday meant many years of traveling through heavy snow. As kids, oblivious as we were to the hazards of driving along snow-covered roads, we couldn't care less, as long as we eventually got to the farm. To us kids, Thanksgiving, in addition to the turkey and many side dishes, meant tobogganing on the hills above the farm orchards and getting a Christmas tree to take back to Chicago!
My parents, for the most part, couldn't care less about how we spent the Thanksgiving holiday, except for one thing. All of us, big or little, had to start Thanksgiving Day by going to church and assisting at Mass.
The world may have changed a lot over the last 60-odd years, but one thing remains the same. For the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, our lectionary for Mass has a couple of options for this American holiday. Despite there being a few options, invariably, the priest would pick the gospel about Jesus curing a large group of lepers, of which only one came back to thank Him. Luke 17:11–19 relates:
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice. And he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" Then He said to him, "Stand up and go. Your faith has saved you."
Fifty years later, I can still hear my younger brother parroting the priest in his deepest voice, saying, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?" Then, improvising as he loved to do for our after-church entertainment, he would add, "Where did the nine ungrateful losers go? Probably to get new clothes, as their leper rags would no longer do." My brother was no theologian but wise all the same.
After a few of these gospel improvisations were done, my Dad would always chime in at some point and say, "Now, boys, I hope you heard what father said in his homily about making this day a full day of giving praise and thanks to God. For you three in the back, you're on for after-dinner cleanup. You can get your sleds out after the dishes are washed." Groans would inevitably ensue.
All levity aside, of all things that have fallen to the wayside in recent years in America, the decline in American church attendance is among the most troubling.
The decline of the American church is well-documented. Gallup reported that as of 2020, 47% of Americans regularly attended religious services (of any faith). That number is down 20% from 1999. This is a precipitous drop, to say the least. Religious service attendance had begun to dip before 1999, beginning in the 1970s. In the late 1960s, religious service attendance in America was about 73%, a level that had held steady for over 50 years. Over the next couple of decades, the average slowly declined 5%.
This Thanksgiving, in addition to eating turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin pie, make the day about giving thanks to God. Buck the trend that has taken God out of Thanksgiving.
The name of the day, Thanksgiving, makes no sense if God is not being given thanks and praise for the many gifts He has showered down upon all of us.