Greeks and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is so deeply embedded in American culture that it withstands the portion of our Constitution’s First Amendment regarding limitations on governmental “establishment of religion.” Even though its very foundation is on occasion on which to give thanks to God – it is so intricately woven into the fabric of our nation’s history that, like Christmas, it is one of very few theologically-rooted days of celebration that is an official national holiday.
It is a day here in the United States associated with eating – and plenty of it, beginning with turkey and ending with an array of pies, with stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams, and other side dishes complementing the gargantuan banquet. The weekend is often spent, lazily, trying to digest, while watching football games on television and indulging in turkey sandwiches and other leftovers.
For those inclined to delve beyond the modern-day traditions and search for the holiday’s historical origins, references to Myles Standish and the other Pilgrims in 1621 giving thanks to Almighty God come to mind. There was a Thanksgiving Day, therefore, long before there was a United States – but many might be surprised to learn that a day of thanksgiving long preceded even the Pilgrims. In fact, as with many of life’s modern phenomena – we have to turn the clock way, way back, to the Ancient Greeks.
Never mind that the Ancient Greek holiday Thesmophoria was the BC version of Thanksgiving, it was also limited to women. The original “girls’ night out,” Thesmophoria was a three-day feast that the men paid for – but were not allowed to attend. So much for those who thought Women’s Lib started in the 1960s…
The holiday was a tribute to Demeter – the Goddess of Harvest, and her daughter Persephone. Though there is no consensus about exactly what “Thesmophoria” means, it is widely considered to mean “bringing of wealth, or abundance.”
Not only were men forbidden from attending the three-day celebration, but they were severely punished if they did so. The Thesmophoria rituals, closely-guarded by the women, were off-limits to men, and there were strict rules against spying by curious male interlopers.
The first day, anothos/katodos (ascent/descent) involved taking skins and other portions of slain pigs and mixing them together with seeds, in order to promote better fertility. The second day, nesteia, was an abstinence from eating. The third and final day, kalligeneia – the good/fair birth – was a day of celebration, rejoicing over the harvest that would come as a result of planting the pig-infused seed.
As for the food, another Ancient Greek day of Thanksgiving, Eleftheria, much like our modern-day American thanksgiving, included a parade, a marching band, sporting events, and plenty of food. But the main meal item was not turkey: it was good old-fashioned red meat!
The event took place in November, too, to commemorate the Battle of Plataea, which took place in 479 BC and resulted in a resounding victory for the Greeks against the invading Persians. A trumpet sounded as a procession marched through town, there were athletic contests, and the food centered on a sacrificial bull.
Between those two holidays, then, were most of the customs associated with our own Thanksgiving Day: gargantuan feasts, parades, music, and even the skin of a pig – except today, it is not mixed in with seeds and planted into the ground. It is thrown, as a football, high in the air.