Celebrating when all is safely gathered in
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
by Jane Silk
In his ode "To Autumn", Keats describes the season in vivid terms as being full of "mists and mellow fruitfulness." This creates a rich sensory impression of autumn, characterising it according to the misty, foggy mornings and evenings which often mark the transition between summer and winter. It marks the end of the growing season.
As a farmer’s daughter I really looked forward to Harvest Festival, a time of joyous celebration. It was a time when my family and would come together in our village church to give thanks for the blessings of the crops. And at last, we were able to spend time with my father, as we saw so little of him during the long days of harvesting!
The success of the annual harvest is dependent on the weather and this year heatwaves and drought have caused serious issues for farmers. We are even more aware of the blessing.
When is harvest in the UK?
In the UK the harvest festival, also known as the harvest home, is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox, which is often between 21-23 September.
Harvest is from the Anglo-Saxon word hærfest, "Autumn". It then came to refer to the season for reaping and gathering grain and other grown products. The full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is called the Harvest Moon. In ancient traditions Harvest Festivals were traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This moon is the full moon which falls in the month of September.
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'. 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.
Farmers celebrated the end of the harvest with a big meal called a harvest supper. 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.
The harvest festival is the closest thing we have to a day of thanksgiving. Although today we can plan a fixed day for this celebration, in the past the harvest festival differed, based on when all the crops had been brought in. The whole community, including children, needed to help right up until the end, as lives depended on the success of the harvest.
In the past they would be held as soon as the harvest had been completed and the final cartload triumphantly returned to the farm where the Harvest Supper, also known as the ‘Harvest Home,’ would take place.
In early Harvest Thanksgivings the church would be decorated with the last sheaf of corn from the harvest. Over time the decorations became more elaborate with people bringing in vegetables, fruit, and flowers. Deuteronomy 16.10, says ‘celebrate the Harvest Festival, to honour the LORD your God, by bringing him a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing he has given you’
Victorian hymns such as "We plough the fields and scatter", "Come 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.
As Harvest Festivals became more popular, hymns were written for such occasions, drawing on the Bible. Many date back from the Victorian era. ‘All things bright and beautiful’, based on Psalm 104.24–25, was published in 1848. ‘We plough the fields and scatter’, where the chorus is based on James 1.17, was translated into English from German in 1861. ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’, based on Psalm 126.5–6, was written in 1874.
Join us as in our celebrations and thanksgiving for the harvest on Saturday 8th October at 6.30 pm at Burnham on Sea Baptist Church, or on Monday 10th October at Hope Baptist Church in Highbridge at 6.30 pm.