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The Symbols of Thanksgiving Guide – History, Meanings & Recipes

When you think of Thanksgiving, what are the first things that pop into your mind? I bet without even trying, you’d name at least one of the symbols of Thanksgiving!

Maybe you think of spending time with friends, or sharing gratitude on Thanksgiving. Maybe you associate the holiday with cooking meals for family, decorating, or taking time to rest.

However you choose to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we encourage you to look at some of the symbols of Thanksgiving that have long been associated with this holiday. 

Let’s dive in to what all the different Thanksgiving symbols are, what they mean, and find ways to incorporate them into your festivities this year. Keep reading to learn more!

A dark wooden table with gourds, pumpkins, leaves and corn on the left side and text on the right side that says "Thanksgiving symbols and their meanings".

It’s no surprise that Thanksgiving, a holiday dedicated to practicing gratitude, is in November, because November is National Gratitude Month.

If you’re interested in learning about another day of thanks, make sure to check out World Gratitude Day, which was created as an alternative to Thanksgiving that could be celebrated by all countries worldwide!

What are the symbols of Thanksgiving?

If you guessed that turkeys make the list of Thanksgiving symbols, you’d be correct! The six main symbols of Thanksgiving are turkeys, cornucopias, cranberries, corn, pumpkins and beans. 

If you look at your traditional Thanksgiving table, how many of those things would you normally find on it?

A Thanksgiving table set for eight people, with all of the symbols of Thanksgiving present on the table, pumpkins, leaves, turkey, etc.

All of these items are commonly found in recipes on Thanksgiving menus, but their representation is not limited to food. Most of these symbols can be turned into fall decor ideas as well! 

We’ve also made a Thanksgiving word search and Thanksgiving word scramble that feature the symbols of the holiday. You can use them as a fun tool to teach your kids more about the holiday and its symbols!

If you’re a fan of word puzzles, make sure to check out our seasonal word search and word scramble for autumn as well, for more family friendly fun this year.

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

Many people believe that we eat turkey because it was served during the “first Thanksgiving”.

This meal, attended by both the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag people, occurred in 1621 in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.

A Thanksgiving turkey with oranges, cranberries and rosemary on a Thanksgiving table next to a set of cutlery.

A letter written by Edward Winslow indicated that the Wampanoag people brought five deer to the feast, and that the Pilgrims brought fowl from a successful fowling mission earlier in the day.

Historical records don’t specifically indicate that the fowl was turkey. However, wild turkeys are native to North America. They were plentiful in the area, so it’s not a stretch to assume the fowl at the first Thanksgiving was turkey!

Turkey desserts for Thanksgiving

If you’re looking to add one of the symbols of Thanksgiving to your dessert table this year check out these turkey desserts! 

A white rectangular platter of turkey desserts for Thanksgiving namely three turkey cookies (make from sugar cookies, candy corn, Reeces cups and malted milk balls).

  • Cookie turkeys (pictured above) – The cookie turkeys pictured above use sugar cookies, candy corn and Reeces peanut butter cups. They look stunning on a dessert table!
  • Rice Krispie cookie turkeys – These turkey inspired Rice Krispie pops are so fun to eat! 
  • Candy corn turkey cupcakes – Looking for a dessert to make for a pot luck at your child’s next school function? Try these!
  • Marshmallow turkey cookies – Do you like marshmallows, and want a festive dessert for Thanksgiving? Look no further than these marshmallow turkey cookies.
  • Cute turkey cupcakes – The turkey on these cupcakes is made entirely from icing! Check it out, it’s easier to make than you’d think.

If you’re looking for tips to cook an actual turkey (and not one of these turkey desserts) for Thanksgiving, check out this guide to choosing the best herbs for roasting turkey

Is corn a traditional Thanksgiving food?

While there is some question to whether turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving, we can be certain that corn was served at the first Thanksgiving. 

Corn is not only a traditional Thanksgiving food, but one of the most traditional Thanksgiving foods! The Wampanoag people taught the Pilgrims in Plymouth how to plant and cultivate corn to survive the winter.

Ears of red, yellow, and multi colored dried corn for Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow mentioned in his letters that during the summer they “planted 20 acres of Indian corn” and that though some of their other crops weren’t plentiful, the “corn did prove well”.

In modern times, there’s normally some form of corn on the Thanksgiving table, whether it be cornbread, creamed corn, or even as decor. Make sure to check out these tips for decorating with Indian corn.

In addition to corn being one of the Thanksgiving symbols, it also has two national days devoted to it: Maize Day and National Corn on the Cob Day.

Corn Thanksgiving recipes

Want to celebrate this symbol of Thanksgiving? Check out the corn recipes for Thanksgiving below. Make sure to check out our tips for cooking silk free corn!

A dessert corn Thanksgiving recipe that looks like ears of corn on a green place mat surrounded by fake orange leaves and a fake white pumpkin and fake orange pumpkin.

If you enjoy learning about corn, don’t forget to check out our post on National Corn on the Cob Day in June! If you’re interested in the national days of the year, our national day’s guide has more fun days to celebrate.

Thanksgiving cornucopia

The cornucopia actually predates Thanksgiving. It originated in Greek mythology. When the god Zeus was a baby, he was cared for Amalthea, a nurse that appeared in the form of a goat. 

One day, when playing too roughly, Zeus accidentally broke one of Amalthea’s horns. Feeling guilty, he bestowed the horn with a divine power to refill itself with endless food and drink.

A Thanksgiving cornucopia overflowing with gourds, pumpkins, and various other Thanksgiving symbols against a white background.

The horn became a symbol of abundance, prosperity and plentiful bounty. Out of reverence, Zeus placed Amalthea and her horn in the sky, creating the constellation of Capricorn.

The modern cornucopia embodies the symbolism of abundance, prosperity and bounty from this Greek myth.

It is only fitting that the cornucopia is a symbol of Thanksgiving, as the holiday revolves around sharing gratitude, blessings, food, love and quality time with others.

If you’re interested in Greek mythology, make sure to check out the story of Cupid and Psyche, and the story of Apollo and Daphne. They explain why Cupid is a symbol of Valentine’s Day!

Horn of plenty meaning

Another name for the cornucopia is the horn of plenty. If you were fluent in Latin, this would make sense to you right away.

The latin word cornu translates to “horn” and copia translate to “plenty”. Put the two words together, and you have the horn of plenty! (As a fun fact, cornu is also the source of the word “unicorn“!)

A horn of plenty filled with the symbols of Thanksgiving including corn and pumpkins against a black background.

Cornucopias can often be found on as Thanksgiving centerpieces, and are usually filled with fall fruit (like apples), raw nuts, fallen leaves, gourds, flowers and more. Don’t be afraid to overfill your cornucopia, after all they are a Thanksgiving symbol of abundance!

If you’d like to incorporate this Thanksgiving symbol into your celebrations this year, check out our tutorial to make your own baked cornucopia.

Why are pumpkins associated with Thanksgiving?

Pumpkins are a fall crop, and are native to North America. Archeologists found evidence that places pumpkins in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico over 7,500 years ago! 

We can’t be certain that pumpkins made an appearance at the first Thanksgiving, but it is likely they did. They definitely didn’t show up in the form of pumpkin pie like they do at so many modern day Thanksgiving gatherings. 

A truck carrying a large pumpkin with leaves blowing around it and text over it that reads Happy Thanksgiving.

In fact, the oldest “pumpkin pie” was very different than the one we know today. Pumpkins were hollowed out, filled with milk, spices, and honey and then baked. If you love pumpkins, make sure to check out our list of pumpkin facts.

We encourage you to honor this symbol of Thanksgiving by incorporating pumpkins into your festivities.

You could try using them as decor inspiration with ideas like these mini pumpkin planters for succulents, as wine cork pumpkins, as white chenille pumpkins, or as DIY scrapbook paper pumpkins

Pumpkin dessert recipes for Thanksgiving

If decor projects aren’t your thing but you still want to celebrate this symbol of Thanksgiving in a special way? Try making one of these pumpkin recipes for Thanksgiving.

A pumpkin dessert recipes for Thanksgiving consisting of a pumpkin cake with toasted coconut frosting - a slice is cut from the cake an on a plate in the foreground, and the whole cake is in the background next to fake pumpkins and fake leaves.

I know pancakes aren’t dessert, but I had to mention this recipe for banana pumpkin pancakes. They’re so delicious you’ll fall in love with them all season long!

Why do people eat cranberries on Thanksgiving?

Cranberries are one of the few fruits native to North America. Cranberry harvesting season is between mid September and early November.

Indigenous American peoples combined dried meat (usually venison), cranberries and fat to make “Pemmican”, which is similar to a modern day energy bar.

A cast iron pan of cranberries next to various spices and herbs to start a cranberry recipe for Thanksgiving.

In addition to this bitter berry being consumed for food it was also was used for dying fabric and in poultices to remove poison from arrow wounds.

Since cranberries were so important and widely available it is believed that they were present at the first Thanksgiving. 

We have taken this tradition of eating cranberries, and expanded on it with new recipes! Now cranberries are a major symbol of Thanksgiving.

Cranberry recipes for Thanksgiving

Want to learn more about this Thanksgiving symbol? Check out our post with 25+ interesting Cranberry facts and try one of the recipes below!

A cranberry recipes for Thanksgiving consisting of cranberry relish in a ramekin and corn chips around it on a green plate.

If you need to bring a drink to a Thanksgiving potluck, look no further than this slow cooker spiced wine. It has cranberries, oranges, and plenty of spices to make it a heavenly drink. Plus you can always reheat it in the crockpot when you arrive!

If you make the slow cooker spiced wine make sure to check out our post on the optimal temperature for red and white wines which features a section on ways to recycle wine corks

Beans & the Three Sisters crops

Beans are the last item in the list of the Thanksgiving symbols. They are part of a triad of crops called the “Three Sisters crops” which consists of corn, beans and squash.

They have a mutualistic relationship: all three crops work together in harmony to benefit one another. This makes them perfect crops for companion planting.

A clip art image of three Native American girls, holding the Three Sisters Crops - the girl on the left is holding beans, the one in the middle is holding pumpkin squash, and the one on the right is holding corn.

The corn grows tall, and provide the beans with a way to climb towards the sun. The bean vines in turn stabilize the corn stalks in windy weather. When the beans grow, they return nitrogen to the soil, which benefits both the squash and corn.

Lastly, the large squash leaves help the soil retain its moisture, and prevent weeds from growing. Some squash leaves even have sharp spikes on them which protect all three crops from predators.

The Wampanoag people knew this, and taught the Pilgrims how to plant beans next to their corn crops so they could also have a plentiful harvest. 

Green bean recipes for Thanksgiving

If you are trying to use all of the symbols of Thanksgiving in recipes this year, you’re in luck. Here’s some delicious Thanksgiving green bean recipes for you to enjoy.

A plate of fresh, bright, green beans on a table on top of a burlap placemat.

Check out this guide to growing green beans if you’re interested in adding the crop to your garden next year. 

Facts about the symbols of Thanksgiving

Add to your knowledge of Thanksgiving symbols by checking out these facts about each of them below. Some may surprise you!

A table with the words Happy Thanksgiving in the center and four plates in the corners with silverware rolled in napkins, pumpkins, nuts and other symbols of Thanksgiving scattered around the table artistically.

  • Even though Thanksgiving is in November, June is National Turkey Lover’s Month. Learn more about the national days in June including National Turkey Lover’s Day.
  • The average ear of corn has 800 kernels which are in 16 rows. While that is the average, it’s interesting to note that corn will always have an even number of rows!
  • The cornucopia is pictured in both the Wisconsin and Idaho state flags. It also appears on the coat of arms for Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Panama.
  • There’s a name for pumpkins with warts on them. They’re called knucklehead pumpkins.
  • Cranberries are 90% water and contain pockets of air. These pockets of air allow them to float and bounce!
  • Green beans are often called string beans because they have a tough fiber, or string, running through the center of the bean. 

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More posts like this one on Thanksgiving symbols

If you enjoyed learning these facts about Thanksgiving symbols, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more fun facts about some of your favorite holiday things! 

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If you’re a trivia fan, make sure you check out our “fun facts” section for history, interesting facts and more!

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Would you like a reminder of this post about Thanksgiving symbols? Just pin this image to one of your trivia boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.

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Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

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