Throughout history the bountiful harvest of fall has been celebrated with thanksgiving celebrations. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations were held by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews, the Chinese, and the Egyptians.
One of the many gods and goddesses worshiped by the ancient Greeks was the goddess of all grains, called Demeter. On the first day of the autumn festival honoring Demeter, married women built leafy shelters containing couches made with plants. On the second day they fasted. On the third day they offered gifts of seed corn, cakes, fruit, and pigs at a feast for the goddess. As a reward for these acts, they hoped Demeter would grant them a good harvest.
The Romans held a harvest festival on October 4 called Cerelia, which honored Ceres their goddess of corn (from which the word cereal comes). Along with offerings of harvest first fruits and pigs, they celebrated with music, parades, games, sports, and a feast.
The ancient Chinese celebrated on the full moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. Their harvest festival, Chung Ch'ui, celebrated the birthday of the moon. Special treats for their thanksgiving meal were round, yellow "moon cakes" stamped with the picture of a rabbit, which the Chinese believed they saw on the face of the moon. The Chinese believed that flowers would fall from the moon during their three-day festival and good fortune would come to those who saw them.
For Jewish families the harvest festival is called Sukkoth. Sukkoth, which begins five days after Yom Kippur, is also called Hag ha Succot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) and Hag ha Asif (the Feast of Ingathering). Sukkoth is named for the branch huts (succots) that Moses and the Israelites lived in and carried with them as they wandered the desert before they reached the Promised Land. For Sukkoth, which lasts eight days, the Jewish people build small huts of branches, hung with fruits and vegetables, in which the family eats their evening meal.
In 1621, after a devastating first year in the New World, the Pilgrims' governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in honor of their good fall harvest. The festival was celebrated by the colonists and their neighbors, the Native American Indians. Later, during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress declared a day of national thanksgiving. By 1817 New York State had adopted Thanksgiving Day. Which was celebrated by many other states by the middle of the century. Since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving, each president has designated a day, usually the fourth Thursday of November, as Thanksgiving Day.
—Gathered & contributed by Manny.