There's a Whole Lot of History Behind Your Favorite Thanksgiving Centerpiece

There's a Whole Lot of History Behind Your Favorite Thanksgiving Centerpiece
·4 min read

It's time to brush up on your Thanksgiving trivia! On November 25, impress your guests with your knowledge of everyone's favorite centerpiece: the cornucopia. You've likely seen a cornucopia before—you know, one of these hollow, horn-shaped baskets that's ubiquitous in late November. In fact, as you read this, you might even be preparing to fill one with gourds and flowers for your Thanksgiving centerpiece, setting a delightful, eye-catching scene for your family and friends. After all, cornucopias and Thanksgiving go together like pie and pumpkin spice, roasted turkey and homemade gravy, and cranberry sauce and leftover sandwiches. It's just expected.

But have you ever wondered about the the meaning and symbolism behind this classic Thanksgiving symbol—let alone how it became associated with the holiday in the first place?

Here, we're sharing the fascinating and, yes, magical history of the horn of plenty that so many of us have come to recognize as a harbinger of the fall season. The decorative cornucopia, after all, is much more than just a ritualistic object associated with Thanksgiving; it's also got an exciting history all its own—one that's totally separate from the story of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving dinner. (Believe it or not, there was probably no cornucopia present on that table: This now-beloved centerpiece actually has roots in ancient Greek and Roman history!)

You can find the full history and meaning of the Thanksgiving cornucopia below, along with answers to some of your most frequently-asked questions about it. Here's to a more knowledgeable, informed Turkey Day—and a fun conversation starter to share with your guests (right along with the most interesting Thanksgiving facts you might not know).

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What's the history of the Thanksgiving cornucopia?

The word "cornucopia" is derived from two Latin words: Cornu, meaning "horn," and Copia, meaning "plenty." A frequent presence in Greek and Roman folklore, the overflowing cornucopia was often depicted as a symbolic accessory carried by gods and goddesses like Hercules, Fortuna, and Demeter. It was first described as an actual animal "horn" taken from Amalthea, the goat nurse of Zeus. According to the ancient Greeks, baby Zeus was being cared for and fed by Amalthea when he broke off one of her horns, which began to emit a constant supply of food for him. That's how this "horn of plenty" first came to symbolize prosperity, wealth, and abundance.

The pagan symbol was later adopted by Christians and used often in European harvest festivals to celebrate lush, bountiful crops. It was also used on currencies, coats of arms, and in church decorations.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Why is the cornucopia a symbol of Thanksgiving? And was there a cornucopia at the first Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving has always been an ode to harvest time, and it's always taken place in the fall—so it's natural that the holiday would feature the cornucopia, which historically embodies all of those things. Beyond that hypothesis though, it's actually unknown when or why the cornucopia became associated with the American holiday. Historians have long surmised that it may have been a nod back to those European harvest festivals, but that must have happened sometime after the first Thanksgiving. There's no formal record of a cornucopia appearing there.

What is the purpose of a cornucopia?

Today, the cornucopia is used purely for Thanksgiving decorations. It continues to symbolize abundance, a bountiful harvest, and, by extension, an appreciation for both of those things. It makes sense, then, that Americans today still use the decorations as centerpieces for their Thanksgiving table. They're also widely used in children's crafts.

How do you fill a cornucopia—and where should you display it?

You might want to start by putting something in it. Just about anything and everything can be placed in a cornucopia, of course, but in the U.S., it's typically filled to the point of overflowing with a variety of fruits, veggies, grains, and pumpkins, all of which share a color scheme or are specific to the autumn season. As for where to put it, the possibilities are endless: Place the filled cornucopia in the center of your Thanksgiving table for a lush-looking centerpiece, add it to a kitchen counter or island for a splash of festive charm all season long, or even display it on a bureau or other tabletop surface anywhere in your home.

How should you style a cornucopia?

There are no rules when it comes to styling cornucopias. But we're partial to an organic, relaxed vibe—and a cornucopia that's brimming with fresh produce is an easy way to get there. Instead of arranging your gourds in a carefully considered pattern or ensuring that they're placed just so, allow them to spill out of the inner cavern and onto your table for a look that's as effortless and natural as it is beautiful.

Of course, you don't have to stick to mini pumpkins and squash. Try adding succulents to your cornucopias as demonstrated in the above video, or play around with fresh flowers and wrapped candies. If the cornucopia will be displayed at a kids' table, you could even add some small trinkets or toys for the little ones. The choice is yours!

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