By Rosanne Stinchcombe
As the glorious summer melts away into the approaching autumn, we can begin to look forward to the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ as famously penned by poet, John Keats.
A time for being thoughtful as well as thankful, autumn and the harvest season reminds us of all things bright and beautiful nature gives to us.
Though the crops have been harvested and the fields are empty, the hedgerows are bursting with wild fruits such as elder and blackberry and are adorned with scarlet hips and haws, while clusters of bright orange berries glow on the Rowan trees.
Ash keys and sycamore wings spin and flutter down from trees and shiny brown conkers are gladly collected by children.
While we may take these autumnal jewels for granted, a successful harvest season was once a matter of life or death for farmers; a prosperous crop meant a well-fed community through the winter and farmers could celebrate with a traditional harvest supper.
The term harvest was actually the Old English name for autumn, ‘haerfest’ – a time for festival or feasting. Traditionally held on the Sunday closest to the ‘harvest moon’, or the full moon closest to the equinox, the harvest festival is usually celebrated around 23rd September.
Before the 17th century, the harvest began in August when loaves from the first wheat crops were baked and given to churches for a ‘loaf mass’, giving rise to its name of Lammastide.
Once the harvest had ended, a lavish supper would be held to give thanks to the many workers who had reaped the farmer’s fields of all its natural glory. The last sheaf was traditionally carried in by a well-respected community member who was given the title ‘Lord of the Harvest’; this sheaf would be woven into corn dollies to decorate the banquet table.
In rural areas, farmers held their harvest supper at Michaelmas on 29th September and included roast goose with apples – said to bring financial stability for the forthcoming year.
As a giving of thanks, the feasts were accompanied with time-honoured songs such as the ‘hokey’ where labourers would rejoice with merriment.
While technology has lessened the dependence of the season, the harvest festival is still celebrated in churches and schools with songs of praise and thanksgiving.
In schools, younger children learn songs about cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green, while older pupils write and rehearse poems to read at the harvest concert. Here, a dazzling display of fruit and vegetables will sit proudly on the stage. Harvest gifts are distributed amongst pensioners and those less fortunate to teach children the importance of caring for others.
Churches give thanks in a practical way also, keeping a food bank from which those who are needy may apply for assistance. Some church members go out onto the streets to seek out the homeless and offer them food, blankets and toiletries or just a friendly listening ear.
So as the dark nights draw down, as the leaves turn to October gold and those mists begin to creep about the woodlands, perhaps it might be a good idea to explore what is happening in the local area, join in and maybe even offer a helping hand.