In the UK the harvest festival is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox, which is often between 21-23 September. Harvest Festival reminds Christians of all the good things God gives them. This makes them want to share with others who are not so fortunate. In schools and in Churches, people bring food from home to a Harvest Festival Service. After the service, the food that has been put on display is usually made into parcels and given to people in need.
The Harvest Moon
Normally falling towards the end of September, or early October, the harvest festival is the closest thing we have to a day of thanksgiving. Although today we can plan a fixed day for this celebration, in the past the harvest festival differed, based on when all the crops had been brought in. The whole community, including children, needed to help right up until the end, as lives depended on the success of the harvest.
In the past they would be held as soon as the harvest had been completed and the final cartload triumphantly returned to the farm where the Harvest Supper, also known as the ‘Harvest Home’, would take place.
Harvest Festival used to be celebrated at the beginning of the Harvest season on 1 August and was called Lammas, meaning 'loaf Mass'. Farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local church. They were then used as the Communion bread during a special mass thanking God for the harvest. The custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, and nowadays we have harvest festivals at the end of the season.
At the start of the harvest, communities would appoint a strong and respected man of the village as their 'Lord of the Harvest'. He would be responsible for negotiating the harvest wages and organising the fieldworkers.
The end of the harvest was celebrated with a big meal called a Harvest Supper, eaten on Michaelmas Day. The 'Lord of the Harvest' sat at the head of the table. A goose stuffed with apples was eaten along with a variety of vegetables. Goose Fairs were and still are held in English towns at this time of year.
Harvest Corn Dolls
Harvest celebrations pre-date Christianity, but it has always been seen as a very spiritual time to give thanks for the year’s crop. Symbolic corn dolls, made out of the last sheath of the harvest, were placed on banquet tables when parishes had their huge feasts. The doll was then kept until the spring to ensure the continuation of a good crop next year. This custom began with Saxon farmers, who believed the last sheath contained the spirit of the corn.
Of special importance were the last sheaves of corn left standing as it was often believed a Corn Spirit resided within them. A descendent of the Roman goddess of grain Ceres, it came to be known by a variety of names such as ‘The Maiden’, ‘The Neck’ and ‘The Mare’ and once scythed would be made into a symbolic corn doll. First though came the act of actually cutting these final sheaves.
Reapers were anxious not to anger the spirit so they would line up at a distance and throw their sickles until the corn was cut, a time-consuming act which guaranteed anonymity. In the Welsh Borders these straws would be tied into four bunches, to represent the legs of a horse, before the sickle-throwing commenced. In Devon and Cornwall there was much ceremony attached to ‘Crying The Neck’ with the final reaping held aloft by a farmer who was encircled by his workers. The corn dolls would often be kept above the hearth and, in order to guarantee the success of the next harvest, ploughed back into the land the following Plough Monday. In other regions they were thrown into a neighbouring farm that was yet to finish their own work, a boastful and enraging act.
The tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches as we know it today began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service for the harvest at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Victorian hymns such as "We plough the fields and scatter", "Come ye thankful people, come" and "All things bright and beautiful" helped popularise his idea of harvest festival and spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service.
Jewish Harvest Festival
The Jewish Harvest Festival is called Sukkot or 'Feast of Ingathering' or 'the 'Feast of Tabernacles'. It is celebrated at the end of the year, after Rosh Hoshanah, the third of the great Annual Festivals.