Thursday, November 12, 2020

Thanksgiving Day Mass: Thanks or No Thanks?

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914
The following article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of The Latin Mass magazine; many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here, to Fr. Thomas Kocik for his pioneering work on this subject (from which I have borrowed liberally), and for Matthew Hazell’s valuable assistance. We publish this article the day after the feast of St Martin of Tours, which is indirectly responsible for the Thanksgiving Day turkey. Happy Martlemas!

Even before the rise of “cancel culture,” Thanksgiving Day was under attack for an alleged amnesia regarding the mistreatment of Native Americans. No doubt this debate will only escalate in the coming years and not be resolved easily. In the meantime, we Catholics can raise a different question, less discussed but nonetheless important to our own spiritual health: What should the relationship of Thanksgiving Day be to the divine worship and liturgical rhythms of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church?

The story of the first Anglo-American Thanksgiving is well known. In October 1621, in gratitude to God for their first successful harvest in the New World, the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony held a three-day banquet that was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Englishmen. Not as well known is that despite their hatred of popery, the Pilgrims’ celebration was indirectly inspired by the Catholic harvest celebrations of the Middle Ages, especially the Dutch custom of serving goose on St. Martin’s Day (November 11). According to some scholars, when the Pilgrims, who had spent time in Holland before landing on Plymouth Rock, ran out of geese for their feast, they supplemented the menu with a bird unique to North America. And that is how the Martinmas goose became the Thanksgiving turkey.
Other papist influences on the American Thanksgiving Day include the intriguing possibility that Squanto, the liaison between the Pilgrims and the local Pokanokets, was a baptized Catholic, having been saved (and converted?) by the Franciscans from the slave trade in Spain before returning to New England.
It took time for Thanksgiving to become the nationally recognized holiday that it is today. Although President George Washington declared it a holiday at the request of Congress in 1789, Thanksgiving was celebrated intermittently during the first half of the nineteenth century. President Lincoln set the date as the last Thursday of November in 1863, but the holiday continued to depend on the will of the sitting President. From 1939 to 1941, for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day up one week earlier in order to extend the Christmas sales season: jokes abounded during this period of "Franksgiving" that there was now a Democrat Thanksgiving (the new date) and a Republican (the traditional date). In 1942, Congress passed a law that made the fourth Thursday of November the permanent date for Thanksgiving, removing it from the discretion of the executive branch.
The First Thanksgiving, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, ca. 1912
Other customs came gradually. Playing football on Thanksgiving became popular in the late nineteenth century and influenced the development of high school and professional leagues. It is speculated that the South, which had resisted Mr. Lincoln’s holiday, eventually embraced Thanksgiving because of the irresistible allure of tossing the pigskin.
Catholic Responses
The Catholic observance of Thanksgiving also developed gradually. In 1858, the governor of New York declared the third Thursday of November of that year to be Thanksgiving. The next day, the New York Times reported: “With the exception of the Catholics, all religious denominations observed the day, and the churches during morning service were generally thronged.” [1]
By the early twentieth century, however, American Catholics were not only following the Thanksgiving trend but in some ways trying to lead it. The Pilgrims, the Sacred Heart Review wryly noted in 1913, failed in their attempt to abolish the Catholic holiday of Christmas; instead they successfully added a holiday that Catholics could in good conscience observe. But the same article laments that Thanksgiving “has, to a great extent, degenerated into a day of feeding and football games”—this, mind you, in 1913. Consequently, the article admonishes Catholics to be the ones who return Thanksgiving to its religious core and to be “foremost in the observance of Thanksgiving Day” by starting with a morning Mass, “the greatest act of thanksgiving that can be performed on earth.” [2]
At the time, Holy Mass had only recently become a common way for Catholics to observe Thanksgiving. [3] Contemporary examples include a Pan-American Solemn High Mass of Thanksgiving held in St. Patrick's Church (Washington, D.C.) that was customarily attended by Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet members, Senators, and Congressman. But when President Woodrow Wilson agreed to attend in 1913, it was for some the last straw. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, and the Church of Christ protested that the Catholic hierarchy was passing the Thanksgiving Mass off as an official state event in order to “show” other nations (such as Italy, rife with potential Catholic emigrés) that the United States “is not a Protestant country but a Roman Catholic country.” [4]
Less controversially, that same year Bishop Camillus Paul Maes of Covington, Kentucky decreed the following:
We gladly avail ourselves of the official recognition by the nation's rulers of God's blessings upon the United States of America to call our faithful people before the altar of God. We hereby direct that on Thursday, Nov. 27, 1913, the pastors celebrate a high Mass of Thanksgiving at an hour deemed most convenient for the people of the parish. After Mass they shall recite the “Prayer for Authorities” that the people may join them in supplication to God for the spiritual welfare of church and country. Immediately thereafter Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament shall be given and be followed by a solemn Te Deum. [5]
The Catholic embrace of Thanksgiving even reached beyond America’s shores. In 1902, four years after the Philippines became a de facto U.S. colony in the wake of the Spanish-American War, the Church on that archipelago acquiesced to its new rulers by celebrating a Solemn High Mass on Thanksgiving Day in the cathedral of Manila. [6] Yet Thanksgiving Day could also be an occasion for exercising critical patriotism. In the same cathedral fourteen years later, Bishop Hurth of Vigan rebuked bigotry and quoted Washington's Thanksgiving Day proclamation, saying:
But the Father of our country wished that together with giving thanks to the Almighty, we should also concern ourselves with those things that might make us undeserving of the divine favors….Washington wants us to be concerned also with our national sins. [7]
A yet greater development occurred six years later. “Thanksgiving Day Praised by the Pope,” touted a New York Times headlines in 1922. “For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, the Pope joined in an American national festival” when he insisted on receiving 180 students from the North American College in Rome and said to them:
National thanksgiving! It is a noble idea on the part of your people—choosing the day for prayer. Men who lack prayer lack one of the essentials of life. Your country must indeed be blessed by Almighty God.
It is consoling to see the heads of nations fixing days for the people to pray to and thank God for blessings received. Nations doing this cannot but prosper materially and spiritually. I am with you, with your people, on the day of Thanksgiving. We are praying together. [8]
Pope Pius XI, a fan of the American Thanksgiving
The pope in November 1922 was Pius XI, author of the powerful 1925 encyclical Quas Primas and institutor of the original Feast of Christ the King. The great pontiff who promoted the social reign of Jesus Christ the King was endorsing the American holiday of Thanksgiving, apparently deeming it compatible with his own convictions.
Pope Pius XII was also a fan of the American holiday. Addressing a group of visiting U.S. Congressmen on Thanksgiving Day 1949, the Pope said:
Our heart is touched and comforted by this recurring evidence—and would that it were universal—of one of the very first charges linked to the mission of responsible statesmanship. It is truly just and right everywhere to give thanks to God for the blessings of life, liberty, and abundance.
Oddly, the press misconstrued Pius’ desire to see a universal custom of statesmen giving thanks to God and reported that the Pope had asked the world to observe “the United States’ traditional Thanksgiving Day.” [9]
Pope Pius XII, another fan of American Thanksgiving
But did Pius XII also grant a “Turkey Indult” that allowed U.S. Catholics to eat flesh meat the day after Thanksgiving as is often alleged? Beginning in 1931, the Holy See granted American bishops the faculty “to dispense from the laws of fast and/or abstinence on civil holidays.” [10] The bishops, however, rarely took advantage of this indult individually, and they never acted as a group to grant a national dispensation. Moreover, the faculty they received did not include the day after a civil holiday. From what I can tell, the closest the U.S. came to a Turkey Indult was in November 1965:
Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York will hear the announcement at tomorrow’s masses [sic] that on the Friday following Thanksgiving they need not refrain from eating meat. The dispensation, granted by each Bishop with power from the Vatican, will probably be in effect in most American dioceses. [11]
Less than a year later, the Church would no longer require Friday abstinence under pain of sin except during Lent. Current canon law defines Friday as an obligatory day of penance, the standard form of which is abstinence from flesh meat; other forms of penance, however, may be done instead (1251-1253). If, then, one wishes to enjoy turkey and cranberry sandwiches on Black Friday, one can by doing some other form of penance besides abstinence. The 1931 Vatican letter concerning the civic holiday indult recommends making “some offering especially in favor of the poor.” [12]
Thanksgiving Day after Vatican II
Shortly after the Civil War, the New York Times explained that although Catholics were sure to enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner, “their religion will not permit the use of the forms of their Church in commemoration of a secular holiday.” [13] As is usual with the Times’s coverage of Catholicism, they got it half right. We have already seen that the Church can and did offer a Mass of Thanksgiving on this day. The traditional Roman Missal also includes several Votive Masses suitable for the occasion such as a Mass for Peace and “Diverse Orations” such as Prayers for the Country’s Rulers. Finally, priests can celebrate a Votive Mass in honor of our nation’s patron saint, which since 1847 has been Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
But the Times was correct insofar as Catholic worship does not directly incorporate secular holidays into its liturgical calendar—that is, until after the Second Vatican Council. In November 1968, a subcommittee of the (American) Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy composed “a special Thanksgiving Day Mass” that speaks “directly of the American understanding of the annual Thanksgiving observance.” [14] The new Mass was first celebrated in November 1969 and has since undergone two revisions: the 1968 propers were replaced with new or expanded prayers in the 1974 and 1985 American editions of the Sacramentary, and these in turn were replaced in the 2011 edition.[15]
All three versions succeed in speaking directly of the American understanding of Thanksgiving Day, but to what degree they speak directly of a Catholic understanding of things is a matter of some debate. The 1968 Preface, for example, proclaims:
It has come to pass in each generation
for all who have believed that Jesus,
by his death and resurrection,
gave them a new freedom in his Spirit.
It happened to our fathers,
who came to this land
as if out of the desert
into a place of promise and hope.
For those whose ears have been tuned by the sacred liturgy, the reference to “our fathers” is out of key. “Our fathers” (patres nostri) in the Roman Rite’s traditional prayers means not our fathers of the flesh (and still less of our nation) but our fathers in the Faith. If the Preface is referring to our Founding Fathers, it should be recalled that many of them were Deists who denied the Resurrection. If it is referring to the Pilgrims, it should be recalled that they believed that freedom in the Spirit meant freedom from the papacy. And if it is referring to our immigrant forebears, it should be recalled that not all Americans have ancestors who came here freely or experienced it as a place of promise or hope.
The 1968 Preface, however, is nothing in comparison with that of the 1974/1985, impishly dubbed by priests and seminarians of the time as “the Manifest Destiny Preface” because of its reputed endorsement of the belief that God wanted the American people to rule from sea to shining sea. (It was this doctrine that was largely responsible for the U.S.’s unjust military conflicts in the nineteenth century, from the Mexican-American War to the extirpation of the American Indian.)
Retaining the lofty cant about “our fathers” from 1968, the 1974 Preface goes on to say:
Once you chose a people
and gave them a destiny
and, when you brought them out of bondage to freedom,
they carried with them the promise
that all men would be blessed
and all men could be free.
Besides the infelicitous use of the word “destiny,” the Preface of this Mass, as Fr. Thomas Kocik points out, “plays into a distinctively American misconstrual of divine election”[16] that confuses Christian hope with American exceptionalism, the belief that God has given the U.S.A. a special mission to be “a shining city upon a hill” through which, like the Covenant made with Abraham, all nations will be blessed. A baptized Catholic is perfectly free to believe this or not, but he may have good reasons not to, for it implies that America rather than the Church and her seven sacraments is God’s agent of salvation on earth.
And if he is free not to believe it and perhaps wise not to, why was this inessential, controversial, and potentially dangerous doctrine enshrined in the solemn worship of the Church? According to the principle of lex orandi lex credendi, if the Church is praying it in her liturgy, she truly believes it. But should all Catholics believe this as an article of faith? Consider how ridiculous it sounds to our Catholic brethren in other parts of the world and how offensive it is to Native American converts.
Fortunately, the Manifest Destiny Preface was replaced with more Christocentric language in 2011, but since the new Preface also doubles down on American ideals it is not above criticism:
You have entrusted to us
the great gift of freedom,
a gift that calls forth
responsibility and commitment
to the truth that all have a fundamental dignity before you.
Fine, but how does a civics lesson help us prepare for the next part of the Mass, the sacrifice of the Lamb without blemish?
Another oddity of the new Mass(es) is that they do not actually give thanks to God! The Collect for the 1974/1985 edition (which is retained in the 2011) includes the line “On Thanksgiving Day we come before you with gratitude for your kindness,” but it does not go on to thank God for the bounties of the year. Instead it and the other prayers ask for greater concern for our fellow man.
The 1974/1985 and 2011 Prayers after Communion also neglect to thank God and end with the odd petition: “Help us to reach out in love to all your people, so that we may share with them the goods of time and eternity” (the 2011 version has “the good things of time and eternity”). Usually, when orations in the traditional Missal mention temporal and eternal goods, it is to graduate from the former to the latter rather than be dispensers of both. And how a layman can be a dispenser of eternal goods is an interesting question.
Even the Preface, which normally begins with “It is truly just and right everywhere to give thanks” to God (and which Pius XII quoted when he spoke of the American Thanksgiving), is missing this key phrase in the 1974/1985 version. Why would you remove one of the Mass’s few references to thanksgiving from your Thanksgiving Day Mass? Fortunately, the verse was restored in 2011, but that is as close as the current version comes to thanking God. The Mass of Thanksgiving in the 1962 Roman Missal, by contrast, gives thanks to God in the Collect and the Postcommunion and beseeches God in the Secret to receive “our sacrifice of thanksgiving.” The new rite’s Votive Mass for Giving Thanks to God (2011) is also consistently better in this regard.
On a peripheral note, Thanksgiving Day Masses tend to attract music that is unsuitable for sacred liturgy and even sacrilegious. Rather than the Te Deum cherished by the Church for centuries, parishes tend to perform patriotic music that makes little or no mention of God and that instead extols the nation. At least “God Bless America” asks God to bless America, but other choices such as “My Country ’Tis of Thee” fail to invoke God until the fourth verse—and how many Catholic congregations ever get to the fourth verse at a weekday morning Mass?
Finally, the Thanksgiving Day Mass, even though it is technically a “Votive Mass at a fixed time,” appears in the Sacramentary and on official calendars as part of the Proper of Saints. The traditional liturgical year also has fixed Votive Masses such as those for the Ember and Rogation Days, but these occasions have been thoroughly consecrated, even though some of their petitions are for temporal goods such as fair weather or a good harvest. There is nothing jarring about seeing an Ember Day on the calendar; it fits in effortlessly with the rest of the liturgical season.
The Thanksgiving Day Mass, on the other hand, retains without alteration the name and character of a secular holiday. A celebration begun by anti-Catholic Puritan Separatists sits on the Church’s sacred calendar nestled among the feast days of the Saints, thereby giving the impression that all are on the same level. That impression is only deepened by the prayers of the Mass itself, which obsequiously cavil to American self-regard.
“In the Catholic Church, liturgically speaking, every day of the year is ‘Thanksgiving Day,’” writes Father Francis X. Weiser, for every day is an opportunity to celebrate the “Eucharist,” derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving.[17] Yet Weiser also acknowledges a psychological need for special manifestations of gratitude. In the Middle Ages, exceptionally splendid Masses of Thanksgiving would be offered at the end of public crises like an epidemic, war, or natural disaster, and fixed annual thanksgiving Masses would be held after the harvest. Mindful of this history, the U.S. Church over a century ago began to give due recognition to Thanksgiving Day, for there is nothing wrong with designating a day of national thanksgiving, even when it is by a secular government.
But in all these cases—as we saw with the directives of Kentucky’s Bishop Maes—the Catholic hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, would conclude the Mass. In all these cases, the faithful would thank Almighty God without any admixture of erroneous or dubious historical claims in their solemn prayers. And in all these cases, a “worldly” occasion was subsumed into a spiritual act rather than the reverse.
There is much for which to be grateful as a citizen of the United States of America but not at the cost of polluting or compromising Catholic dogma with nationalist ideology. A Mass of Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day? Yes please! A Thanksgiving Day Mass? No thank you.

Update: For more information on the Turkey Indult, see here and here.

[1] “Thanksgiving in the City,” New York Times (November 19, 1858), p. 5.
[2] “Thanksgiving Day,” The Sacred Heart Review 50:23 (November 22, 1913), p. 6.
[3] See Thomas Meehan, “Thanksgiving Day,” Catholic Encyclopedia,
[4] “Pan-American Mass Vexes Protestants,” New York Times (November 19, 1913), p. 3.
[5] “Bishop Maes Orders Thanksgiving Service,” The Sacred Heart Review 50:23 (November 22, 1913), p. 1.
[6] “Thanksgiving at Manila,” New York Times (November 28, 1902), p. 2.
[7] “Bishop Hurth Rebukes Bigotry in Manila,” The Sacred Heart Review 55:5 (January 15, 1916), p. 1.
[8] Associated Press, “Thanksgiving Day Praised by the Pope,” New York Times (December 1, 1922), p. 13.
[9] Associated Press, “Pope Asks World to Mark U. S. Thanksgiving Day,” New York Times (November 29, 1949), p. 4.
[10] T. Lincoln Bouscaren, The Canon Law Digest, vol. 4 (Bruce: 1958), p. 353. The dispensation, which was first granted during an October 5 audience with Pope Pius XI and formalized in a letter dated October 15 of that year by His Excellency P. Fumasino-Biondi (Apostolic Delegate to the United States), was renewed every five years by the Holy See into the 1960s.
[11] “Catholic Rule to Be Eased,” New York Times (November 20, 1965), p. 25.
[12] The Sacred Congregation of the Council, October 15, 1931.
[13] “Thanksgiving Day: How It Will Be Observed,” New York Times (November 26, 1868), p. 5.
[14] BCL Newsletter 5:6-7 (June-July 1969), pp. 1-2 in Thirty-Five Years of the BCL Newsletter (USCCB Publishing, 2004), pp. 183-184. I am deeply indebted to Matthew Hazell for bringing these texts to my attention.
[15] Many thanks to Father Robert Johansen for locating and sharing his copy of the 1974 Sacramentary.
[16] Fr. Thomas Kocik, “Thanksgiving Day Mass? No, Thanks,” New Liturgical Movement, November 23, 2009, All of Fr. Kocik’s excellent article is worth reading.
[17] Handbook of Christians Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, and Co: 1958), p. 268.

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