Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
One of the most popular decorations for Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, a horn-shaped basket filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowers. It is a symbol of an abundant harvest for which the Pilgrims were giving thanks during the first Thanksgiving. Most likely there was no cornucopia at that dinner, so when did it become a part of our modern Thanksgiving holiday?
The Cornucopia in Mythology
The cornucopia is an ancient symbol with origins in mythology. The most often cited myth involves the Greek god Zeus, who was said to have been nursed by Amalthea, a goat. One day, he was playing too roughly with her and broke off one of her horns. Her horn became a symbol of strength (Zeus) and nourishment (Amalthea).
Another myth that is attributed to the origins of the cornucopia told of the Greek demi-god Herakles (Hercules in Roman mythology) wrestling with the river god, Achelous, who was often portrayed as horned. Herakles, renowned for his strength, broke off one of Achelous' horns. Herakles kept the horn and filled it with fruits and flowers to be presented as a wedding gift to Deianira, his betrothed.
Regardless of whose horn inspired the stories, the horn became an attribute of many Greek and Roman deities who represented abundance and the harvest. It was most closely associated with the goddess Fortuna. Filled with the fruits of the harvest, it became the Horn of Plenty.
The Cornucopia in History
As Christianity spread throughout the ancient world, many peoples clung to pagan symbols like the horn of plenty. It lost its mythological associations and instead became associated with bountiful harvests. It was used in harvest celebrations and was even part of church decorations during the harvest festivities. Many representations of horns of plenty appear in both paintings and statuary over the centuries.
The word cornucopia is first documented in an English dictionary that was printed in 1508. It derives from two separate Latin words, Cornu, meaning horn, and Copia, which means plenty.
Because of its associations with abundance, the cornucopia has been used on currencies, seals and coats of arms. In more modern times, it has been used in the ornamentation of public buildings such as banks and government offices.
How Did the Cornucopia Become Associated With the Thanksgiving Holiday?
The first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans was a harvest celebration, similar to the ones that the Pilgrims had celebrated in their home country. However, it did not become an annual public holiday until the Civil War. President Lincoln decided that a public holiday to be celebrated by everyone, north and south, would be good way of unifying the nation. He proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be our day of Thanksgiving. The date was changed to the fourth Thursday in November by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.
Traditional foods for the Thanksgiving holiday are a reflection of the foods that are thought to have been served at the first Thanksgiving celebration. The main course, turkey, is a native bird, although the ones found on our Thanksgiving tables bear little resemblance to the original wild turkeys. Potatoes, cranberries, corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash, all of which are native fruits and vegetables, are features of a traditional menu. Newer migrant groups have added dishes that are traditional to their cultures to their Thanksgiving menus.
Thanksgiving decor has always featured the fruits of the fall harvest so it is no surprise that the traditional and very ancient cornucopia is also included, often as the centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table. Cornucopias are offered for sale in many places in the fall. The horn is usually a wicker basket but can also be made of ceramic, metal, stone, and even wood. The vegetables, fruits, nuts, and flowers filling them are manufactured, rather than the real thing. After Thanksgiving, most people store them for re-use the following year.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do only Christians celebrate Thanksgiving?
Answer: Here in the US, Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, resembling the traditional harvest celebrations which are celebrations of abundant harvests. Most American Thanksgiving meals feature a menu of traditional foods but because we are a nation of immigrants, many people also include foods that are native to their ancestral homes.
Question: Which ancient people first had the cornucopia?
Answer: There is no way of knowing that for sure since most ancient peoples were not literate so there are no written records of their cultures.
© 2014 Caren White
lol on November 20, 2017:
Purl2agony, isn't it fascinating? I knew it had a long history, but not that it extended back to the ancient world. Thank you for the compliment, but none of my hubs will ever by HOTD because they don't meet the requirements for stellar hubs. And thank you for reading, commenting, voting and sharing
Caren White (author) on November 21, 2014:
Purl2agony, isn't it fascinating? I knew it had a long history, but not that it extended back to the ancient world. Thank you for the compliment, but none of my hubs will ever by HOTD because they don't meet the requirements for stellar hubs. And thank you for reading, commenting, voting and sharing.
Donna Herron from USA on November 21, 2014:
I had no idea about the history of cornucopias (or is the plural cornucopiae?) but I love this hub. Definitely a great Hub of the Day nominee for Nov 27th. Voted up and shared :)
Caren White (author) on November 14, 2014:
So glad that you enjoyed it, Eddy. And thank you for reading, commenting and voting!
Eiddwen from Wales on November 14, 2014:
Very interesting and voted up for sure. Enjoy your day.
Caren White (author) on November 13, 2014:
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, PurvisBobbi! Thank you for reading, commenting and especially tweeting!
Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on November 13, 2014:
Thanks for writing this hub about one of our favorite items to decorate with for the holidays.
Have a wonderful holiday of thanks with your love ones.
I am going to send this to my followers on Twitter.
Caren White (author) on November 13, 2014:
And a Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Heidithorne! Thank you for reading and commenting.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 13, 2014:
Interesting info on a Thanksgiving standard! Voted up and interesting. Happy Thanksgiving!