As Autumn approaches and green leaves turn to earthy shades of amber and red, an age old celebration takes place across the UK.
The Harvest Festival is a long-standing tradition which has existed across many different cultures for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. The festival is a celebration of a successful yield for farmers as crops are harvested for food and animal feed and is also a time for honouring those who grow and reap crops.
How did the tradition begin?
In Britain, the act of giving thanks for successful harvests has been ongoing since pagan times. Harvest Festivals are traditionally held on the Sunday near or of the Harvest Moon, a full Moon that appears closest to the autumn equinox.
The word ‘Harvest’ is derived from the Old English word Hærfest which means ‘Autumn’. It is said the tradition of the Harvest Festival originated in Morwenstow, Cornwall in 1843, when Reverend Robert Hawker invited the parishioners of his church into his home to receive the Sacrament in “the bread of the new corn.” Back then, Harvest was a vital time of year when the success of the farmers yield was a genuine matter of life or death. A poor harvest and an especially cold winter could bring with it months of hardship and, in some cases, starvation.
How long is Harvest season?
In the early days, Harvest season began at the beginning of August to early September, if the weather allowed, and would usually be completed by the end of the month. The winter crops such as wheat and rye were harvested first, followed by the spring grains such as barley and oats. The Harvest workload was much greater than the farming labour force could manage, so every available man and woman, and many a child, was rounded up to gather the ripened crops. Depending on when all crops had been picked, the date of the Harvest Festival would traditionally change. Nowadays, the UK harvest season falls towards the end of September or the beginning of October.
Top Harvest Festival Traditions
There are a host of ceremonies and rituals which occurred in the early days, but are not so common now:
• Church bells were rung each day during the harvest season.
• A corn dolly was crafted from the last sheaf of corn harvested. It is said the dolls were kept until the spring to ensure the continuation of a good crop the following year. It is also said this custom began with Saxon farmers, who believed the last sheath contained the spirit of the corn.
• The horse bringing the last cartload was usually decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons.
• A fantastic feast would be held at the local farmers’ house and games were played to celebrate.
• Baked goods, such as cornbread and fruit-laden bara brith, were commonplace at a harvest feast. Summer fruits and whisky were also favoured.
Until the twentieth century, farmers celebrated the end of the harvest with a big meal called the Harvest Supper and all who had helped in the harvest were invited. It was sometimes known as a "Mell-Supper," after the last patch of corn or wheat standing in the fields which was known as the "Mell" or "Neck." Cutting the mell signified the end of the work of Harvest and the beginning of the feast.
Harvest suppers comprised meats, vegetables, puddings, tarts and ale, and would be accompanied by singing and drinking games. All of which is concluded at Michaelmas on the 29th September, the signifier for the end of Harvest.
By the seventies, in many parts of Britain the Harvest Festival had lost its connection to the land. School children were encouraged to mark the Harvest by taking tinned food to school, rather than local or seasonal produce. And as the mechanisation of farming was followed by mass marketing and globalisation, the appreciation of food being the produce of the land sadly diminished.
Modern day celebrations typically include the singing of hymns, prayer recital, decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food, and the charitable act of giving food to those who don’t have access to basic provisions has also become tradition.
Will your residents’ association be holding a Harvest Festival in 2023? If so, we’d love to see your pictures. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what park you live on and what you did to celebrate, and we will feature them in our next newsletter*
*Please ensure that all who feature in your photos are happy for you to share them with us.