Row of cows at farm in Shropshire

What is the significance of harvest festival?

14/10/19What is the significance of harvest festival?

Did you know that the word harvest has evolved from the old English word hærfest, which actually meant autumn? Harvest festivals have long been celebrated in Britain at the end of September or in early October, on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon, which is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox.

Feasting on a harvest supper

Since ancient times, gathering the harvest has been a vitally important event in the agricultural year and whole communities would turn out to bring the harvest home, since their lives absolutely depended on a successful harvest. A harvest supper was held once the last of the harvest was brought back to the farm. One local tradition in Shropshire in the early 1800s was the ‘old sow’s’ visit, when 2 men dressed up in sacks filled with gorse, which scratched anyone who got in their way!

Final sheaf of corn

Harvest festivals are these days strongly associated with church services, but the tradition goes back much further than Christianity. The final sheaves of corn had special significance as they were believed to embody the corn’s spirit. So as not to anger the spirit, sometimes known as the ‘Maiden’, the ‘Neck’ or the ‘Mare’, reapers would line up throw their sickles from a distance so it was not clear whose sickle was responsible for the final cut. In our nearby Welsh Borders the final sheaves would be tied into four bunches, representing a horse’s legs before the sickle throwing started. Dating back to Saxon times, the final sheaf would be turned into a corn doll. Placed on the table during the harvest supper, they were kept until the following spring in the belief that this would encourage a good harvest the following year.

Apple festivals are still celebrated widely at this time of year, and luckily for us the tradition of an Apple Day is particularly strong in our local counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire, where many rare and traditional varieties of apples are still found.

These days, far fewer people work on the land to make a living and technology has reduced in some ways our reliance on the seasons. As a result, it would be all too easy for these old traditions to be forgotten. Fortunately, with their roots steeped in ancient folklore, harvest festivals still play an important role in our lives, particularly in rural communities, even though their function is more social now than anything else.

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