Depending on your family traditions, if you celebrate Thanksgiving, you may bow your heads and say grace before your meal. But while many familiar cultural images of saying grace, from Norman Rockwell paintings to Meet the Parents, show Christian traditions, the practice actually pre-dates Christianity by millennia.
In Bless This Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from Around the World, Adrian Butash asserts that people of various faiths around the world express thanks for their meal before eating. “In every culture there are sacred beliefs or divine commandments that require honoring the giver of life — God or the divine principle — through acknowledging the sacred gift of food,” he writes.
Imagery connecting food with gratitude goes back to paleolithic cave paintings, Butash told HuffPost in 2014, and evidence of giving thanks before a meal dates back to 2,500 B.C., to ancient Hindu blessings found in the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata. Centuries ago, “if you were starving and got something to eat, you were mighty thankful," Butash told HuffPost. "Today, we don't think about it that much, but when you think of food as life and death, then you can see how serious it became in the consciousness of the people.”
As for why we call a prayer before a meal "saying grace," according to Catholic news site Aleteia, the pre-Elizabethan English word for giving thanks was "graces," derived from the Latin phrase gratiarum actio (thanksgiving) and the Italian word grazie (thanks). Although other faiths have traditions of saying a prayer or giving a blessing before or after a meal, it's primarily Christians who use the phrase "saying grace."
A 2017 study conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that 48% of Americans say grace before meals at least a few times a week. The practice was most common for Protestants (60%) and Catholics (52%), though some people of other faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics, reported saying grace regularly as well.