The Americans have established a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers reached America. The English might very well establish another Thanksgiving Day; to celebrate the happy fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left England. I know that this is still regarded as a historical heresy, by those who have long ceased to worry about a religious heresy. For while these persons still insist that the Pilgrim Fathers were champions of religious liberty, nothing is more certain than the fact that an ordinary modern liberal, sailing with them, would have found no liberty, and would have intensely disliked all that he found of religion. Even Thanksgiving Day itself, though it is now kept in a most kindly and charming fashion by numbers of quite liberal and large-minded Americans, was originally intended, I believe, as a sort of iconoclastic expedient for destroying the celebration of Christmas. The Puritans everywhere had a curious and rabid dislike of Christmas; which does not encourage me, for one, to develop a special and spiritual fervour for Puritanism. Oddly enough, however, the Puritan tradition in America has often celebrated Thanksgiving Day by often eliminating the Christmas Pudding, but preserving the Christmas Turkey. I do not know why, unless the name of Turkey reminded them of the Prophet of Islam, who was also the first Prophet of Prohibition.
What I Saw in America
Thanksgiving Day is far from my favourite holiday. For one, as the great Chesterton intimates above, it seems a parody of the secular celebration of a religious feast--not just Christmas, as Chesterton mentioned (though since his writing, they've sure done quite a number on that), but also Martinmas, Twelfth Night, and all the winter festivals on the Church's calendar celebrated so merrily by our ancestors. Certainly the feast has quasi-religious overtones, but the religion celebrated therein is not mine, but rather the civil religion of Americanism, to which it seems the almost all of my co-citizens, not just even but especially Catholics, adhere. I reside in Massachusetts, indeed the historic nest of Puritanism, which has nonetheless one of the proportionally largest Catholic populations in the United States. So does that make Massachusetts a Catholic state? Hardly, for Americanization has turned the vast majority of my co-religionists here into cultural Puritans, even though actual descendants of Mayflower passengers are hard to find here today.
As my line in Canada was often at war with the Puritans' line, I find it almost a betrayal of my ancestors to submit to these most radical of rebels against the Church, then in the American Revolution rebels against their King (an Anglican Church and Hanover King, moreover; even the original political and religious rebellions of England were not radical enough for them). Long questioning the propriety of celebrating Thanksgiving Day, with these origins, I come to the conclusion that a national day of thanksgiving be acceptable, so long as it does not obtrude on the religious calendar, but that any celebration of the Pilgrim Fathers is not for a Catholic, especially one of French-Canadian descent as myself.
So where does that leave me? Shall the Thanksgiving feast be moved to what is here known as Columbus Day, as it is in Canada currently, in celebration of the New World being opened to our ancestors (not just English, and not just French, moreover), and in thanksgiving for the extensive Christianization of the Americas? As it is a civil holiday already, such would make sense, with the November holiday treated just as the October holiday is now, another day off. Or shall it be moved to the feast of St. Martin, the favourite of saints among the poilus in the trenches of the Great War, again a public holiday as Veterans' or Armistice or Remembrance Day, in thanksgiving for the peace in which we live and the peace that came about on his feast after certainly numerous petitions to him from the front? These are both excellent ideas indeed, and can be treated additionally to the late November holiday, but let me add another possibility.
Thanksgiving Day always falls shortly before the First Sunday of Advent, and Advent should have a somewhat penitential character. (No, it is not the "holiday season"; perhaps the greatest penance so many of us could observe is refraining from the materialism so inherent therein.) And so we have a civil holiday right before this season of preparation; in other words, a sort of early-winter Mardi Gras, and a celebration of thanksgiving for all that has come to pass within the ending liturgical year. So does it become us to make merry and celebrate the great bounty our gracious God has laid before us before the four weeks of preparing our souls to run with the shepherds of Bethlehem to the Infant-King in His manger? I very well think that it does. Is there precedent for this?
Certainly, a celebration of the feast given by Don Juan de Oñote, the conquistador who took New Mexico for the Church and for Spain is well in order, a reminder of the thanks to be given to the Lord in all things. Oñote's feast preceded that of the Puritans, occurred on American soil, and involved a Mass and the many priests who travelled with his expedition. Our feast can indeed be a memorial of Oñote's feast.
Bur more directly related to the season to come, it so appears that we can even celebrate the Puritans' feast to some extent. Any schoolchild can probably tell you that what enabled to Pilgrims to survive was agricultural assistance given them by the Indian Squanto. Apparently, Squanto was Catholic. He was redeemed from slavery by Spanish Franciscans and thereafter baptized and instructed in the faith. One must wonder how different history would be had he shared the same faith as his Puritan neighbours.
Likely he would then have seen their poor harvests as a sign that they were not elect, as God did not grace their work that they might prosper, and the Pilgrims would then have starved or frozen to death. But no, Squanto, the real hero of the feast, likely remembered what the Little Brothers of Christ had taught him about the criterion of our judgement: "as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren..." The English had once enslaved him, but coming on these poor Englishmen in a dire situation, Squanto surely did not look on them as reprobates who got what they deserved, but remembered how Our Lord had commanded that we love our enemies. As we consider at the turning of the liturgical year that Christ will come again to judge us, we would do well to use this little reflection to examine our conscience as we prepare to celebrate his first coming, give alms as generously as we can, and become those "men of good will" to whom the holy angels granted peace when first heralding God among us.
And so, contrary to Puritan mores, I pour a glass of America's great native drink, bourbon whiskey, and invite you, readers, to join me in a toast--to Don Oñote and to Squanto. May these true American heroes never be forgotten. Now go forth and revel!