Bringing In The Sheaves
Hazel Reynolds examines some of our longest-standing harvest traditions.
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.