What to Know About Thanksgiving Cornucopias

A cornucopia is an American Thanksgiving tradition, but the horn of plenty is much older than the holiday.

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Each autumn, squashes, gourds and other fall foods make their way from garden to table, and those that aren’t cooked become festive Thanksgiving decorations. Some gourds are specifically grown for decorative purposes.

The traditional, food-filled Thanksgiving centerpiece, the cornucopia, has a long history, going back to ancient Greece. So before you arrange those adorable miniature pumpkins in your holiday spread, learn a little more about the horn of plenty.

What Is a Cornucopia?

A cornucopia is a cone with an open mouth and a curved tail, like an extra-wide goat horn. They are usually woven like a wicker basket, but you can find them in other materials and finishes. You can even bake a cornucopia out of bread. The open mouth is customarily filled with food to share while seated at the Thanksgiving table, but inedible arrangements are popular as well.

Where Does the Cornucopia Come From?

Cornucopias go way back. There are many origin stories in classic literature, most famously Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a lengthy and influential Roman epic poem. According to Ovid, Hercules defeats a monster by removing its horn, which then becomes the horn of plenty.

Princeton University’s Index of Medieval Art cites several other ancient origin stories, including one in which Zeus mistakenly breaks off the goat Amalthea’s horn. Cornucopias also exist in historical paintings, such as Janssens’ The Origin of the Cornucopia, and sculptures.

The word itself stems from Latin cornu copiae — horn of plenty. Fortunately, modern cornucopias aren’t made from animal horns.

Where Do You Put Them?

Typically, cornucopias are placed on the Thanksgiving dinner table, but you can put it wherever you want. It could go on a kitchen island with hors d’oeuvres, or on a coffee table with fall leaves and inedible gourds. You can even put a cornucopia on your fireplace mantle for Thanksgiving.

What to Fill Them With

Decide whether you want your cornucopia to be edible or purely decorative. Baked cornucopias are good with meats and cheeses. Reusable cornucopias are good with grapes, nuts and other snacks. If you want a decorative cornucopia that will look terrific all season, fill it with ornamental gourds and fall foliage — fake leaves are fine.

Can You Make Them? Or Is it Better to Buy One?

You can certainly create a DIY cornucopia. Getting the right shape is the most difficult part.

If you’re handy in the kitchen, a bread cornucopia is one option. Taste of Home made a bread form out of an old pan. If you’re better with tools and crafts, make a form out of chicken wire and cover it with burlap, twine or anything else you like.

If you have the time and the skill, you could get creative with metal, wood or clay. Or let the kids take it on instead. Have them fill ice cream cones or construction paper cones with candy as a fun Thanksgiving craft.

When you’re hosting Thanksgiving for the family, making a cornucopia might be one more responsibility you don’t need. Simple cornucopia baskets are inexpensive. If you prefer a pre-filled cornucopia arrangement, expect to spend a little more. Knowing you have a ready-made centerpiece every year may be worth the extra cost.

Mikayla Borchert
Mikayla is an assistant editor for Family Handyman, specializing in indoor and outdoor gardening, organization and décor. She has one cat and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota. Outside of work, she likes running, skiing, hiking and tending her balcony garden.