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Thanksgiving traditions celebrate the harvest

January 5, 2011

With Thanksgiving just a week away, I thought that it might be interesting to look at some of the traditions associated with this annual celebration of the harvest.

No, not the tradition of stuffing yourself to the point of absurdity with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. And not the tradition of passing out on the couch during the second half of the Jets game or cheering as your college football team trounces, or gets trounced by, a long-established rival. Nor am I talking about the tradition of spending the morning in front of the TV, taking in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I'm referring to the time-honored representations of the harvest, starting with the customary foods, among which, first and foremost, is the turkey; so much a part of Thanksgiving tradition that we often refer to the holiday as "turkey day."

According to many historians, the tradition of having turkey at the Thanksgiving table, appears to be rooted in the "History of Plymouth Plantation," written by William Bradford, one of the leaders of the English Puritan Separatists, ca. 1650, after he had served for 35 years as governor of the Plymouth Colony.

In his writing about the first harvest, in 1621, Bradford states that they "now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached And besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many." Although turkeys are mentioned, it seems to me that it could just as easily have been duck or goose that the Pilgrims ate at their harvest celebration. It also seems just as probable that they would have served venison or rabbit.

Bradford also wrote, " they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery." From this, it is certainly reasonable to surmise that corn, which is customarily served with the contemporary Thanksgiving meal, was almost certainly a part of the feast of 1621, as well.

But corn is more than a Thanksgiving Day food. It can be quite attractive and is often among the time-honored decorations that we adorn our homes and tables with. Beautifully colored cobs of Indian corn are often dried and hung on the wall or on the door to greet those who enter, or used as part of the table centerpiece.

And speaking of centerpieces, what greater or better known symbol of the success of the harvest; of abundance, richness, and giving, than the overflowing cornucopia, or horn of plenty? Contemporary cornucopias are usually hollow, cone-shaped wicker baskets that have been steamed, bent, and shaped to resemble the horn of an animal, then filled to overflowing with a variety of seasonal vegetables and fruits, among them small pumpkins, squash and gourds, apples, pears, Indian corn, cranberries, grapes, and nuts. Often citrus, and pomegranates are added to the display, as well. Place a delightfully decorated, overflowing cornucopia among, upon, or within a border of autumn-colored leaves (If you haven't got real ones, fake ones will do.) and/or straw, add a couple of pine cones (optional) and a few flowers (also optional), and the picture is complete.

It is interesting to note that while Americans associate the cornucopia with Thanksgiving and the autumn harvest, the story of the first cornucopia (actually cornu Copiae; literally, horn of plenty) dates back to the 5th century B.C. In Greek mythology, Zeus, the supreme ruler of the pantheon of gods, was nursed, as an infant, by a goat, Amaltheia. Although several translations of the myth exist, I prefer the one in which Amaltheia intentionally broke off one of her horns, filled it with fruit and wildflowers, and presented it as an offering to the boy-god she served, as a sign of admiration and respect. In return, and as an indication of his eternal gratitude, Zeus declared that the broken horn would forever be filled with a bounty of whatever she, or its rightful owner, desired. It became known as the "Horn of Amaltheia."

Many of the fruits, nuts, vegetables, leaves, etc., that are used in presenting the cornucopia can also be used to dress up railings, entrances, windows, fireplaces, even countertops; for example, placing a good-sized pumpkin or two on either side of the fireplace. If the fireplace has a mantle, a few small pumpkins or gourds can be discerningly placed upon it.

A hollowed-out medium-sized pumpkin may be used as a vase for an informal arrangement of either fresh or dried autumn-colored flowers. Sheaves of dried wheat can be used as an accent. You can even place a flowering plant, pot and all (think mums, for instance), inside a hollowed-out pumpkin. Then set it beside a door, indoors or out. Medium-small pumpkins can be hollowed out and, with the top removed, tealight candles can be burned inside of them. Place several around the house in your windows for warm, welcoming illumination. For simple enhancement, small or tiny pumpkins or gourds can be discerningly placed around the turkey plate at the center of the table. And you thought pumpkins were just for Halloween.

In the same way, wreathes aren't just for Christmas. A simple autumn wreath can be made very easily from grape vine (or you can buy one ready to go in a crafts store). Embellish it with flowers, leaves, small fruits, nuts, Indian corn, pine cones; anything you feel captures the mood of the season. Place the finished wreath upon the door or over the fireplace.

Traditional Thanksgiving food and decorating ideas make for a memorable holiday. So let's put out the decorations, set the table, and give thanks for our families, for our friends, and for all of the wonderful things that we have harvested, and that we have yet to harvest, in our lives.



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