By Andrew Ritchie
Imagine yourself on the northern coast of Canada, on Baffin Island, in the year 1576. The land is harsh, the wind is cold and there is nary a hint of human settlement. It was here that Martin Forbisher, an English explorer, celebrated the first recorded Thanksgiving on the North American continent, a full 43 years before the pilgrims of Massachusetts at Plymouth Rock.
The notion of celebrating an autumn harvest, however, dates back centuries and can be found in numerous cultures all around the world. The ancient Greeks celebrated the festival of Thesmosphoria to honor the goddess of grain, Demeter. Ancient Chinese civilizations celebrated a harvest festival called Chung Ch'ui and dined on roasted pig, harvest fruits and special moon cakes, in honor of the harvest moon. Even Jewish families celebrate an autumnal harvest festival called Sukkoth or Hag ha Succot, which has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
What all of these harvest festivals have in common is the notion of celebrating the bounty of nature and giving thanks to the Gods who provide such plenty. Though pagan in origin, Thanksgiving celebrations today have a Christian overtone. It is not an official Christian observance, however, and is more a recognition of social peace and agricultural bounty.
In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving and since then each American president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.
The story of the American Thanksgiving, however, begins with the immigration of Pilgrims to America in the 1600s. Fleeing persecution from the British Empire, the Pilgrims set up in the New World (America) to begin again. But they were faced with numerous challenges: contending with a rugged wilderness, sowing crops in harsh weather and fighting a long and difficult war with the American Indians.
Finally, there was success. New settlements were flourishing, the crops were yielding bountiful harvests and new alliances between Pilgrims and Indians were developing to achieve a peaceful coexistence.
It was in 1621, at Plymouth Rock, that the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration took place in the United States during a time of great prosperity. This followed one of the most devastating years in crop harvest, so giving thanks to each other, as well as to God, seemed like the most appropriate way to celebrate such plenty.
The governor at the time, William Bradford, declared a day of thanksgiving that was to be shared by all the colonists and the Native American Indians.
In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October, because of the earlier harvest. The annual observance of Thanksgiving in Canada began in 1710 in Port Royal, Nova Scotia and was declared an official national holiday in 1879.
Thanksgiving today is more or less a North American practice, although some European countries do partake in fall harvest festivals, but not on a national scale on a government sanctioned holiday.
The Horn Of Plenty
The Cornucopia has long been the definitive symbol of Thanksgiving. Its long horn shape allows for the display of the season's bountiful harvest. Centuries ago, it was fashioned from the hollowed-out horn of a mountain goat and filled to brimming with harvest treats. Today, The Horn of Plenty is traditionally made out of wicker. It is ideal as the centerpiece for a holiday table. Cascading grapes, succulent fall fruit and fresh picked vegetables are the order for this holiday original. The Cornucopia heralds our thanks for Thanksgiving.
Today it is standard procedure to serve turkey at Thanksgiving but the main course on this holiday over the years has ranged from duck to chicken to pork to beef. It is believed the Pilgrims originally dined on turkey, which is why it is traditionally associated with Thanksgiving dinner.
Goddess of Grains
The word "cereal" comes from the Roman Goddess Ceres, who was the goddess of corn. The fall harvest festival celebrated by the Ancient Romans was called Cerelia.
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