Harvest Festival

By George Mason, The Harvest Moon

Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon

Agriculture has long been part of British custom, going to back to pre-Roman times in Ancient Britain. The celebration of the annual harvest is commonly known as Harvest Festival, and takes place on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox, and as such can appear up to two weeks before or after the Equinox. Harvest Festival can therefore take place on a Sunday within a six-week period, making it a very variable and moveable celebration.

Harvest Festival can be loosely traced to the centuries immediately following the Roman invasion of Britain, and it is likely from long before then, though scant records of anything remain as writing was mostly forbidden. Through oral history some old customs have supposedly been passed down, though most are vague and therefore typical of similar festivals throughout Europe. Following Roman occupation, and throughout the Saxon and Norman periods, the Harvest Festival was one of giving thanks through prayer and sacrifice, with all who produced food bringing a share to the parish feast, with some to be distributed there and the rest to be donated to the poor and less fortunate. From the last sheaf of corn or wheat a dolly would be made, which was a small effigy that took pride of place at the table during Harvest Festival, and would be kept until the next seeds were sown the following Spring.

Enter Harvest with a scythe on his neck, and all his reapers with sickles, and a great black bowl with a posset in it borne before him: they come in singing.

Thomas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament

From the Middle Ages to the Victorian era, Harvest Festival was colloquially known as Horkey or Hoakey, and would involve drinking and merriment, with a Harvest Supper feast taking place in a barn or the town square. The last harvest from the fields was brought in by horse and cart, decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons, and the church bells would be rung. Then an individual would dress as Harvest and dance around with a scythe, followed by reapers carrying sickles. It is possible this is where the traditional guise of Death came from, especially as Harvest Festival and Samhain can fall close to one another. Foods consumed would include plum cakes and seeded breads, along with meat, often from a plump bird. The Harvest Supper tradition was brought over to America, and became Thanksgiving.

In 1843, Cornwall-based Reverend Robert Hawker invited the parishioners into the church for Harvest Supper. The idea caught on, and throughout the Victorian era the town gathering and drinking was replaced with harvest-based hymns and church observances. Harvest Festival is still noted in the Christian calendar, but is also popular in modern Britain in schools, where children bring canned and tinned goods to be donated to the poor or less fortunate, and are nowadays given to food banks.

George Mason, The Harvest Moon, Public Domain
George Mason, The Harvest Moon, Public Domain
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