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The History of the Harvest

The History of the Harvest 20th September 2018

The Harvest Festival quickly approaches, and we take a look at some of the history and traditions involved.

Background and History

As many of you know, The Harvest Festival is a celebration of thanks for the food grown on the land during the year. However, some of the background and origin story may not be common knowledge. The word Harvest comes from the Old English word “hærfest” which means Autumn and therefore many thanksgiving ceremonies are held in September and October to celebrate a successful harvest.

Harvest actually dates back to ancient times – maybe even further back than some may think. An early harvest festival used to be celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season on 1 August and was called Lammas, meaning ‘loaf Mass’. The Latin prayer to hallow the bread is given in the Durham Ritual. Farmers made loaves of bread from the fresh wheat crop. These were given to the local church as the Communion Bread during a special service thanking God for the harvest.  This custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, and nowadays we have harvest festivals at the end of the season.

However, modern British tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Hymns such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter’, ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’ and ‘All things bright and beautiful’ helped popularise the idea of a harvest festival, and spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service.

We now celebrate this day of thanks by singing, praying and decorating our churches with baskets of fruit and food in a festival known as ‘Harvest Festival’, usually during the month of September. The Harvest Festival is a reminder to Christians of all the good things God gives them. In schools and in Churches across Britain, 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 History of the Harvest

Traditions and Customs

Many traditions and customs of the Harvest Festival originated during pagan times. Corn dollies (picture right) are one of these customs, going back many thousands of years. This pagan custom  came from the beliefs of the corn growing people who believed in the Corn Spirit. These corn dollies were made at Harvest time from the last sheaf of corn cut and was supposed to live or be reborn in the plaited straw ornament or corn doll and was kept until the following spring to ensure a good harvest. The corn dolly often had a place of honour at the harvest banquet table.

Other Harvest customs included horse carts being decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons and church bells being rang on the day of the harvest.

The History of the Harvest

Harvest Today

As British people have come to rely less heavily on home-grown produce, there has been a shift in emphasis in many Harvest Festival celebrations. Increasingly, churches have linked Harvest with an awareness of and concern for people in the developing world for whom growing crops of sufficient quality and quantity remains a struggle. Charitable organisations such as Christian Aid help provide aid and relief to many developing countries around the world.

Harvest festivals are traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (This year being Sept. 23). In two years out of three, the Harvest Moon comes in September, but in some years it occurs in October.

The History of the Harvest

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