Harvest Home Festival

Harvest Home Festival

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Autumn; around September 24
Where Celebrated: England, Ireland, Scotland
Symbols and Customs: Harvest Knot, Last Sheaf
Related Holidays: Autumn Equinox, Harvest Home, Lammas, Mabon, Samhain, Shavuot, Sukkot, Thanksgiving

ORIGINS

Harvest rituals date back to very ancient times. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

The Celtic SAMHAIN (November 1) was partly a harvest festival, although it was also a festival of the dead. Similarly, LAMMAS (August 1) was the pagan celebration of the grain harvest. In England and Ireland, the festival that followed the "ingathering" of the crops became known as the Harvest Home Festival; in Scotland, it was called the Kirn (from the churn of cream that was presented on the occasion). Farmers would prepare a festive meal for their laborers, who usually danced and celebrated long into the night.

The reaper who cut the LAST SHEAF of grain was known as the lord of the harvest. As the final load of grain was pulled by huge draft horses in from the fields, the reapers and their friends or sweethearts would often ride on top or walk alongside, carrying garlands of dahlias, marigolds, and other autumn flowers. In some parts of England, a harvest queen was chosen. She was decorated with the fruits of the harvest and paraded through the streets in a carriage drawn by white horses. The village church was also decorated with autumn flowers and vegetables, particularly potatoes, beets, onions, and pumpkins. A loaf of bread made from the newly harvested wheat was placed on the altar, just as loaves were brought to the Temple at the Hebrew festival of SHAVUOT, and people came to the church to give thanks to God for the harvest.

The Harvest Home supper took place after the grain had been safely stored. Although the earliest harvest suppers were held in the farmhouse kitchen or in the barn, the feast was eventually extended to include everyone in the parish, and it was served under a tent or out-of-doors. Traditional foods included roast beef and ale, accompanied by autumn vegetables. The LAST SHEAF of grain to be cut was displayed prominently at this feast; at the dance that followed, the girl who had tied the last sheaf was led out first by the farmer or his eldest son.

The Harvest Home Festival in England eventually gave rise to Canada's Harvest Festival and the American celebration known as THANKSGIVING. It is interesting to note that the invention of the mechanical harvester has not only simplified the farmer's work but has advanced the date of the harvest by almost a month. In England, it is often completed before the end of August, whereas it used to be finished in late September.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Harvest Knot

Small ornamental twists of grain or knots of braided straw were made and worn as a sign that the harvest was over. There were two basic types: a more elaborate braid, with the heads of the grain still attached, was worn by the women, and a less elaborate twist, although made with equal skill, was worn by the men. The men typically wore their harvest knots in their buttonholes, while girls wore them in their hair. It was customary for young lovers to exchange knots as a token of love.

Last Sheaf

At one time, country people still believed in the Corn Mother, who was a direct descendant of Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain. They believed that the spirit of the Corn Mother was present in the last sheaf of grain left standing in the field, and they were often reluctant to "kill" her by cutting the sheaf. If they beat it with sticks instead, the seeds would be threshed out and the Corn Mother driven away. Sometimes cutting or threshing the last sheaf was more of a game than a serious threat. In parts of Scotland, a reaper would be blindfolded and spun around until he was dizzy. Then he stumbled about, trying to cut the last sheaf while the others laughed at his misguided swings with the scythe-not unlike a game of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey."

Once it was cut, the last sheaf was brought home and set up in the house or barn where the Harvest Home feast was to be held. In some parts of England, the last sheaf was made into a doll, dressed up in white, decorated with colored ribbons, and hoisted on a pole. Then it was carried to the harvest feast and set up in a prominent place. It was called the "Kern Baby" (corn baby), a descendant of the pagan Corn Spirit or Corn Mother.

How the sheaf was disposed of varied widely. Some people believed that it had curative powers and fed it to their sick animals or cows who were about to give birth; some set it on fire and used the ashes to make an ointment that would cure skin ailments. Sometimes the last sheaf would be left hanging in the house or barn until it was replaced the following year, ensuring that the spirit of the Corn Mother would stay with the reapers and bring a good harvest. If someone had drowned, it was believed that the body could be located by laying the last sheaf on the water with a lit candle at the place where the victim had fallen in and allowing it to drift with the current until it came to rest where the body could be found.

A particularly gruesome custom was the ceremony known in Ireland as "burying the sheaf." A last sheaf was stolen and named after someone the thief wanted to get rid of; then the sheaf was "killed," by stabbing or striking it, and buried. As it decayed in the earth, the victim for whom it had been named fell ill. The only way he or she could be saved from death was to find the sheaf, dig it up, and burn it.

FURTHER READING

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: Irish Books and Media, 1984. Helfman, Elizabeth. Celebrating Nature: Rites and Ceremonies Around the World. New York: Seabury Press, 1969. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Long, George. The Folklore Calendar. 1930. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.

Harvest Home Festival

Autumn
Many countries celebrate the end of the summer harvest or the "ingathering" of the crops with a special feast. What became known in England as Harvest Home, or Harvest Thanksgiving, was called the Kirn in Scotland (from the churn of cream usually presented on the occasion), and probably derived from the ancient Lammas celebrations. Eventually it gave rise to the Harvest Festival in Canada and Thanksgiving in the United States.
The autumn harvest feast was usually served in a barn, a tent, or outdoors and was preceded by a church service. Although the earliest harvest feasts were served by a farmer or landowner to his laborers, eventually one big feast for the entire parish became the norm.
See also Szüret
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 795
AnnivHol-2000, p. 160
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 376
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 484
OxYear-1999, p. 651
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 424
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