We generally think of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but there's actually a long tradition of harvest-time celebrations and thanksgiving celebrations.
Every autumn, the ancient Greeks enjoyed a three-day festival to honor Demeter, the goddess of corn and grains. The Romans had a similar celebration in which they honored Ceres, the goddess of corn (the word "cereal" is derived from her name). The Roman celebration included music, parades, games, sports and a feast, much like modern Thanksgiving.
In fact, one of the most prominent Thanksgiving symbols, the cornucopia, actually dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The term (generally describing a horn-shaped basket filled with fruit, flowers and other goodies) comes from the Latin cornu copiae, literally "horn of plenty." In Greek mythology, the cornucopia is an enchanted severed goat's horn, created by Zeus to produce a never-ending supply of whatever the owner desires.
The ancient Chinese held a harvest festival called Chung Ch'ui to celebrate the harvest moon. Families would get together for a feast, which included round yellow cakes called "moon cakes."
In the Jewish culture, families also celebrate a harvest festival, Sukkot. This festival has been celebrated for 3,000 years by building a hut of branches called a Sukkot. Jewish families then eat their meals beneath the Sukkot under the night sky for eight days. The ancient Egyptians participated in a harvest festival in honor of Min, the god of vegetation and fertility. Parades, music and sports were a part of the festivities.
In the British Isles, the major Thanksgiving forerunner was a harvest festival called Lammas Day, named for the Old English words for "loaf" and "mass." On Lammas Day, everyone would come to church with a loaf of bread made from the first wheat harvest. The church would bless the bread, in thanks for that year's harvest.
Thanksgiving day is also related to the English Puritan's practice of setting apart individual days of thanksgiving. These highly religious occasions usually followed times of great difficulty: The Puritans would praise God in thanks for enduring a hardship. In practice, American Thanksgiving isn't a religious occasion, but it is centered around gratitude.
In the next section, we'll learn about the origins of Thanksgiving.