Thanksgiving is not just a Puritan tradition and it is not just linked to pilgrims coming on the Mayflower. Hispanics had come before, long before, with their Thanksgiving traditions.
Celebrations and the giving of thanks to God for gifts received, have their roots in all religions and cultural traditions. Even in our largely secular society, acts of thanksgiving are enacted daily all over the world, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and many other religions. Since the beginning of time, immemorial people have acknowledged their good fortune by special rituals, offerings or sacrifices. There has always been a tradition of celebrating Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving.
In 1620 the Mayflower brought forth to this continent a group of settlers who carried on the traditions of their culture, religion and customs. Thanksgiving was part of their Christian and European lore and they simply continued doing what their ancestors had been celebrating for years.
The true founder of this tradition was the first President of the United States, George Washington, who decided to institutionalize this holiday of Thanksgiving celebration in America by marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God,” as Godfrey Hodgson explains in his 2006, A Great and Godly Adventure. Hodgson further writes that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated with turkey (there weren’t any in Massachusetts) and didn’t take place in 1621. This is important to stress, because the lore and tradition of the festivity may be lost in the mists of myth, but the fact that President Washington thought it appropriate to reserve a special day for Thanksgiving nationwide is of great significance and insured its continuity.
President Lincoln in 1863 also proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” and every year the American people gathered in family reunions to break bread and reaffirm their bonds and ties. All Americans did this because it transcended religions, origins, races, backgrounds and politics, more so than Christmas.
First Thanksgiving: European culture
There is a famous painting by Diócoro Puebla (1831-1901) that depicts a romantic vision of Cristóbal Colón setting foot in the New World that portrays the Admiral kneeling, looking up to God, holding the Castilian banner in his left hand, and giving thanks. Thanksgiving was the first act the Spanish explorers and conquistadors enacted upon arrival, upon discoveries, upon a safe trek, upon setting eyes on new territories hitherto known to Europeans. Certainly, Admiral Christopher Columbus had a lot to be thankful for after his voyage to the unknown.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574), from Asturias, was the founder of the city of St. Agustine, La Florida, in 1565, with a group of soldiers, colonists and priests. On September 8, 1565, official Thanksgiving was given. A mass was celebrated and a feast followed. This day can be considered as the first official Thanksgiving in US territory.
Thanksgiving was part of the European culture and religion. So when Don Juan de Oñate (1550-1626) set out to cross the Río Grande from New Spain, Nueva España, to found the Mexican province of New Mexico, and took possession of the new land on April 30, 1598, he gave thanks, and claimed all the new territory beyond the Río Grande for Spain. Dr. Marian Horvat has put it thus in her “The first Thanksgivings were Catholic”: “…on April 30, 1598, the feast day of the Ascension of Our Lord, the Te Deum was sung and the Franciscans celebrated a solemn high Mass, the first Thanksgiving celebration in our lands.”
It is important to note that Don Juan de Oñate, the man who founded the first European settlements in the upper Río Grande valley of New Mexico, was American by birth. He was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, what was then called Nueva España. Don Juan did not come from Spain, his family did. He was a Mexican-born explorer of what is now The United States.
We can safely say that the second Thanksgiving in US territory was celebrated on April 30, 1598, by a Mexican-born explorer, Don Juan de Oñate, years before the pilgrims, the Puritans, arrived.
Thanksgiving should unite families and the whole country in an act of selfless contrition and universal friendship that should transcend all barriers. All American citizens have a lot to be proud of, and Hispanics not the least.