Bring­ing In The Sheaves

Hazel Reynolds ex­am­ines some of our long­est-stand­ing har­vest tra­di­tions.

This England - - Bringing In The Sheaves -

H E . From pa­gan times to the mod­ern day, this still con­jures up images of fields of golden sway­ing corn, har­vested by strap­ping, cheerful farm work­ers.

Their wom­en­folk bring a wel­come lunch, and once the last sheaf of corn is loaded, the hay wagon car­ries them weary, but con­tent, back to the farm for har­vest sup­per.

Of all the images of har­vest time, this one pre­vails, sup­ported by pas­toral paint­ings and sen­ti­men­tal verse. Thomas Hardy and Con­sta­ble’s ru­ral idylls il­lus­trate a time when corn was cut us­ing the scythe be­fore it was gath­ered into sheaves with the sickle.

Once it was dry, it was trans­ported to the barn to be threshed us­ing a flail, and then a win­now­ing ma­chine would sep­a­rate the corn from the chaff.

A far cry from to­day’s process of har­vest­ing which has moved on with tech­nol­ogy. Huge com­bine har­vesters are now a fa­mil­iar sight, care­fully ma­noeu­vring their way through coun­try lanes from farm to farm. The golden bales, how­ever, still bask in the fields, and on lovely sum­mer evenings the scene could be from any pe­riod in our her­itage.

Although we are no longer uite so to­tally de­pen­dent on the fruits of our land, for our fore­bears a good or bad har­vest could mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween keep­ing the com­mu­nity fed dur­ing the win­ter months and star­va­tion.

To­day, our wheat and other crops can be im­ported from far and wide, although for the liveli­hood of our own farm­ers a good har­vest is still es­sen­tial.

The word “har­vest’ comes from the old English haer­fast, mean­ing au­tumn, the sea­son when we gather in food. Lam­mas Day, tra­di­tion­ally the first of Au­gust, marked the end of the har­vest­ing sea­son.

Orig­i­nat­ing from the An­glo-saxon, Lam­mas is a cel­e­bra­tion of the first grain, re­ferred to as the “Feast of First Fruits” in the An­glo-saxon Chron­i­cle.

Tra­di­tion­ally, a lam­mas loaf was made with flour from the new crop of wheat. The An­glo-sax­ons blessed the bread and broke it into four pieces, each one be­ing placed at a cor­ner of the barn to ward off evil spirits and pro­tect the grain.

Cel­e­brated since pa­gan times, the har­vest is as­so­ci­ated with many and var­ied cus­toms and tra­di­tions. It was be­lieved that the last sheaf of corn left stand­ing in the field em­bod­ied the Corn Spirit.

This was var­i­ously known as the Maiden, the Neck and the Mare, and was be­lieved to be a de­scen­dant of the Ro­man god­dess of grain, Ceres. No man wanted to be re­spon­si­ble for “killing” her as he might then be killed on the spot to re­store her to life In or­der not to anger the spirit and re­main anony­mous, men threw their sick­les from a dis­tance un­til the last corn was cut. Al­ter­na­tively, some men would be blind­folded and took turns to sweep their scythes across the corn un­til it was cut.

Tra­di­tions var­ied. In Devon and Corn­wall for ex­am­ple, the fi­nal “Cry­ing the Neck” cer­e­mony in­volved the farmer hold­ing up the last sheaf, sur­rounded by his work­ers. It would then be hung in the lo­cal church un­til the fol­low­ing spring.

In some areas, the fi­nal sheaf of corn was given to the fairest and favourite girl, while the farm work­ers shouted “The kern” or re­cited a rhyme. Blessed be the day our saviour was born or Mas­ter s corns all well shorn, And we will have a good suf­fer tonight And a drink­ing of ale, and a kirn a kirn ahoa The Corn Dolly, also known as the ern Dolly or the Mell, was made from the last sheaves of corn from the fi­nal field to be har­vested. This rep­re­sented and em­bod­ied the Corn Spirit, or god­dess of the grain. Some have even been found in Egyp­tian tombs.

Once the doll was made, it was car­ried aloft on a pitch­fork, ac­com­pa­nied by the crowd singing and danc­ing, cel­e­brat­ing the fi­nal har­vest of the corn.

It would be dis­played at the har­vest sup­per then given a home dur­ing the win­ter months to bring good luck for the next har­vest, when the ears of corn were ploughed back into the land, be­gin­ning the cy­cle all over again.

Many English coun­ties and re­gions have their own de­signs of corn dol­lies. The Cam­bridge Um­brella, the Stafford

Knot, the Suf­folk Horse­shoe and the York­shire Spi­ral are just a few of the variations made from corn, re­garded as a sym­bol of the earth’s fer­til­ity or some­times made into love knots for young cou­ples.

With the corn safely gath­ered in, the tired work­ers looked for­ward to the har­vest sup­per: the Mell Sup­per or har­vest home as it was also known.

This would be a lav­ish meal of meats, veg­eta­bles, pies, tarts and ale pro­vided by the farmer for his work­ers. There would be singing, mu­sic and danc­ing to cel­e­brate the bring­ing home of the har­vest.

Many church and vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties still hold har­vest sup­pers, of­ten us­ing them as a fund-rais­ing event for their par­tic­u­lar par­ish.

The more mod­ern tra­di­tional cus­tom of cel­e­brat­ing Har­vest Fes­ti­val in church be­gan in 1843 when the Rev. Robert Hawker asked parish­ioners in Mor­wen­stow, Corn­wall to a spe­cial thanks­giv­ing ser­vice.

The now-fa­mil­iar Vic­to­rian hymns were sung, in­clud­ing “We Plough The Fields and Scat­ter”, “All Things Bright And Beau­ti­ful” and “Come, Ye Thank­ful Peo­ple, Come”.

The cus­tom of dec­o­rat­ing churches with home-grown pro­duce be­gan and is car­ried on to­day. Spe­cial as­sem­blies and ser­vices in our schools cel­e­brate Har­vest Fes­ti­val.

Chil­dren are en­cour­aged to take in pro­duce, which can be in tins and pack­ets, as well as from their gar­dens or al­lot­ments!

Har­vest fes­ti­val was tra­di­tion­ally held on the Sunday near­est the Har­vest Moon, oc­cur­ring clos­est to the au­tumn equinox, usu­ally around Septem­ber 22 to 23. In 2018 it will be Septem­ber 25. The so-called Har­vest Moon de­scribes those evenings when the moonrise comes soon af­ter sun­set. This means there is plenty of bright moon­light early in the evening to help farm­ers har­vest­ing their sum­mer crops.

The har­vest should be com­pleted by Michael­mas Day, Septem­ber 29, which also falls near the equinox and her­alds the start of au­tumn.

Tra­di­tion­ally a fat­ted goose, fed on the stub­ble from the har­vested fields, was cooked and eaten. This was meant to pro­tect against fi­nan­cial hard­ship for the com­ing year.

This tra­di­tion of cel­e­brat­ing on Michael­mas Day came to an end af­ter the Ref­or­ma­tion, Har­vest Fes­ti­val hav­ing taken its place.

Michael­mas Day was also known as Goose Day, when Goose Fairs were held around the coun­try, the most fa­mous be­ing the Not­ting­ham Goose Fair, which still con­tin­ues. This year it falls on Fri­day, Septem­ber 28.

The Goosey Fair in Tav­i­s­tock and the Michael­mas Goose Fayre in Coly­ford, Devon, are the only two smaller goose fairs you can visit in Eng­land.

Although meth­ods of har­vest­ing have moved on, be­com­ing more cost ef­fec­tive and mech­a­nised, we con­tinue to cel­e­brate Har­vest Fes­ti­val joy­ously in our churches and schools.

Whether the redistribution of pro­duce takes place near the har­vest moon or you do­nate weekly to lo­cal food banks, we con­tinue to feed those in need.

Don’t for­get to take a drive or a walk on a lovely late sum­mer’s evening to catch the last glimpse of the sun on the quiet fields and golden hay bales. It’s a beau­ti­ful, time­less sight.

A time­less scene as au­tumn’s sun cov­ers the fields with gold.

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