This is the time of year for harvest festivals. Most crops are now safely gathered in and there’s time to rejoice in the produce that has been grown and preserved for the winter. Sadly, many churches and other organisations, for perfectly understandable reasons, now ask for tinned and dried food to be donated and gifted on to others. But a tin of beans or a packet of flour doesn’t say harvest half as well as a bounty of grains, fruit and vegetables spread out on a table or near an altar.
It’s a very old celebration; ‘harvest’ comes from the Old English ‘haerfest’, meaning autumn. And it’s in autumn that the result of a summer’s growth comes to fruition. In the Middle Ages the first of August was ‘Lammas’, when people made special loaves of bread from the newly grown wheat. These were used as the communion bread at a ‘Loaf Mass’ service giving God thanks for the harvest. Later, the Pilgrim Fathers took this tradition to America and it became ‘Thanksgiving’.
The last ears of wheat or corn were woven into a ‘corn dolly’ and there were many different designs for these; each area of Britain had its own special shape, whether a horn of plenty or a wreath. Sometimes bigger figures were made, with a whole sheaf being turned into a doll or goddess of plenty. I’ve tried to make one myself and it’s much harder than you might think – the stalks fold and split rather than bending nicely.
Even more exciting is to catch a glimpse of the Harvest Moon. This is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (around 22 Sept) and can look enormous hanging low in the sky. It’s also a darker, redder colour than the usual pale moon. I saw it for the first time only a few years ago and it was quite a startling sight. The next full moon after that is called ‘Hunter’s Moon’ – both names have been around for three centuries, but obviously would have had much more significance for people before the invention of artificial light.
British Food Fortnight starts on Saturday, and celebrates home-grown produce. As part of that, this year there is a special ‘Bring Home the Harvest’ campaign, and you can read more about it here http://www.lovebritishfood.co.uk/british-food-fortnight/2013-bring-home-the-harvest/bring-home-the-harvest-in-your-community/
It’s a lovely way to remember our farmers and their hard work, and celebrate locally grown food – which always tastes better, after all. I’ll be out picking more brambles to freeze for winter puddings; what are your plans for harvest?