Harvest Festival – Origins, facts and customs

The Harvest Festival is a long-standing tradition and celebrates a successful yield for farmers across the country. Today, it focuses on charitable giving, specifically sharing food with those who do not have access to basic provisions.

The Harvest Festival is a long-standing tradition and celebrates a successful yield for farmers across the country. Today, it focuses on charitable giving, specifically sharing food with those who do not have access to basic provisions.

In Britain, thanks have been given for successful harvests since pagan times. Harvest festival is traditionally held on the Sunday near or of the Harvest Moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. The celebrations on this day usually include singing hymns, praying, and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food in the festival known as Harvest Festival, Harvest Home, Harvest Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving.

The Harvest Festival tradition pre-dates Christianity and dates back to the pagan times and the name derives from the Old English word ‘Haerfest’ meaning ‘Autumn’. Today’s church celebrations only began in earnest in Victorian times, when the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker invited his parishioners to a special harvest thanksgiving service at the church in Morwenstow, Cornwall in 1843.

Customs and traditions:

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.

Nowadays the festival is held at the end of harvest, which varies in different parts of Britain. Sometimes neighbouring churches will set the Harvest Festival on different Sundays so that people can attend each other’s thanksgivings.

Until the 20th century most farmers celebrated the end of the harvest with a big meal called the harvest supper, to which all who had helped in the harvest were invited. It was sometimes known as a “Mell-supper”, after the last patch of corn or wheat standing in the fields which was known as the “Mell” or “Neck”. Cutting it signified the end of the work of harvest and the beginning of the feast. There seems to have been a feeling that it was bad luck to be the person to cut the last stand of corn. The farmer and his workers would race against the harvesters on other farms to be first to complete the harvest, shouting to announce they had finished. In some counties the last stand of corn would be cut by the workers throwing their sickles at it until it was all down, in others the reapers would take it in turns to be blindfolded and sweep a scythe until all of the Mell was cut down.

Corn dolls are also traditionally made for the Harvest Festival using the last sheath of the harvest. This doll is then kept until spring to ensure a good crop the following year. This doll is then sacrificed with a hare (one hiding in the crop). The doll is meant to symbolise the goddess of the grain. Nowadays a hare made of straw is sacrificed instead.

Some churches and villages still have a Harvest Supper. The 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. Victorian hymns such as We plough the fields and scatterCome, ye thankful people, come and All things bright and beautiful but also Dutch and German harvest hymns in translation helped popularise his idea of harvest festival, and spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service. On 8 September 1854 the Revd Dr William Beal, Rector of Brooke, Norfolk,[2] held a Harvest Festival aimed at ending what he saw as disgraceful scenes at the end of harvest, and went on to promote ‘harvest homes’ in other Norfolk villages. Another early adopter of the custom as an organised part of the Church of England calendar was Rev Piers Claughton at Elton, Huntingdonshire in or about 1854.

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 need of basic provisions and for whom growing crops of sufficient quality and quantity remains a struggle. Development and Relief organisations often produce resources for use in churches at harvest time which promote their own concerns for those in need across the globe.

Encyclopaedia Britannica traces the origins to “the animistic belief in the corn [grain] spirit or corn mother.” In some regions the farmers believed that a spirit resided in the last sheaf of grain to be harvested. To chase out the spirit, they beat the grain to the ground. Elsewhere they wove some blades of the cereal into a “corn dolly” that they kept safe for “luck” until seed-sowing the following year. Then they ploughed the ears of grain back into the soil in hopes that this would bless the new crop. In the early days, there were ceremonies and rituals at the beginning as well as at the end of the harvest:

Harvest Festival in 2020:

COVID-19 restrictions meant that Harvest Festival celebrations across the UK have had to take a very different form to those of earlier years. Many churches have opted not to carry out their Harvest Festival celebrations to limit the spreading of the virus and protect parishioners.

However, some churches are still finding innovative ways to conduct their harvest celebrations. The churches of St John (Hopwood) & St Luke (Heywood) in the Diocese of Manchester have already marked Harvest Festival in an outdoor interactive service.

They will be providing parishioners with a pack which included paper and crayons, the Revd Kirsty Screeton had scattered food items around the church grounds. This all-age activity encouraged people to reflect on the source of their food and how it came to be in their hands. : “[The items] we see can remind us that God is incredible and that sometimes he does the work himself but at other times God needs our help. For the vegetables – although God created it, gave it its colour and shape, in order for it to grow God needed someone to plant the seed, care for it, water it and pick it when it had grown. Harvest celebration means lots of things. It means helping those in need with our food donations, it means being thankful to God and those in our food chain productions, but it is also about being thankful for what God has given us in gifts too.”

In Portsmouth, the festival will be used to gather food donations through a campaign known as ‘With Thankful Hearts.’ The project brings together local government, charities and churches. Canon Bob White, vicar of St Mary’s Church, Fratton, and chair of local charity Hive, said: “The last few months, and in particular the period of lockdown, focused our awareness of the food supply chain and the many things we so often had taken for granted. We looked afresh at our lives and the things we use and enjoy every day and perhaps appreciated them more.”

Another church taking on the challenge of marking the Harvest in a different way are the parishes of Seaview, St Helens, Brading and Yaverland – which form the benefice of Haven Churches – on the Isle of Wight. Volunteers have been instructed to “go to town” on bringing flora and fauna into the churches by the Revd Alison Morley. The Revd Morley explained: “With so much uncertainty and fear around, the planting of trees is a visible and tangible sign of hope and of patience as we wait for the harvest in three- or four-years’ time.”

Whilst the Festival may return in a more familiar form in the future, it does not mean that the current economic climate must completely abolish the celebration of the Harvest for this year. Like many other churches across the UK, there are still a number of ways for us all to show our thanks for what we have and give to those less fortunate.