About The Harvest
Harvest is one of the most important times for farmers – the culmination of a year's work and investment. Why not organise a visit from a local farmer who can tell your school what he does throughout the year and at Harvest time?
The word ‘harvest’ is from the Old English word ‘hærfest’, meaning ‘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. So in ancient traditions Harvest Festivals were traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. In two years out of three, the Harvest Moon comes in September, but in some years it occurs in October.
Harvest time is also no longer confined to the traditional months of August and September – early potatoes can be lifted from April and digging winter hardy vegetables throughout the winter is possible. Recent trends like poly tunnels have helped to delay or speed up growth, thus extending the season.
Ample food, and freedom from the necessity to work in the fields are two central features of harvest festivals: eating, merriment, contests, music and romance are common features of harvest festivals around the world. Why not investigate how different cultures celebrate the Harvest?
During a harvest celebration, people bring in produce from the garden, the allotment or farm. The food is often distributed among the poor and senior citizens of the local community, or used to raise funds for charity.
Tradition and Folklore
Harvest is such an important time of the year and natural elements such as weather and fertile soil play a key part, so it is surrounded by tradition and folklore. Here are a few harvest traditions, but it is always worth a visit to your local museum or agricultural society who may be able to uncover some local Harvest secrets!
- The harvest was brought in with the help of casual labour, overseen by the harvest lord, who wore a rush hat entwined with green bindweed and red poppies.
- When ploughing, it was customary to leave a deliberately crooked furrow near the farmstead so that fairies couldn't aim their arrows along the furrows, also to direct the eye of the “evil one” away from the farmstead.
- Planting while the moon was on the wane was thought to ensure a good harvest.
- The juice from wild arum or mouse-ear plants was rubbed into scythes to “charm” them into continued sharpness.
- Each field was cut in a circle, from the outside in.
Some regions have their own special ways of celebrating the harvest, for example:
- As the last sheaf was gathered and carried in procession into shelter, this bringing of the ‘harvest home’ would be an occasion for great rejoicing accompanied by feasting, music and dancing. ‘Harvest Home’ is still celebrated in many villages throughout the West Country.
- In Cornwall, the ceremony of Crying the Neck was practiced and is still re-enacted today annually by The Old Cornwall Society
- When the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, one of the reapers would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out in a loud voice…
"We have it! We have it! We have it!"
The rest would then shout…
"What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee?"
And the reply would be…
"A neck! A neck! A neck!"
Everyone then joined in shouting…
"Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. So-and-So"
The important role the harvest plays in society is reflected in the wealth of harvest related literature, poems and artworks. Traditional songs and hymns include:
- Here's a Health to the Barley-Mow
- We Plough the Fields and Scatter
- Come ye Thankful People, Come
- All things Bright and Beautiful
- God Speed the Plough
Famous artworks include:
- Harvest Moon by John Linnell
- The Hayfield by Ford Maddox Brown
- Reapers by Noonday Rest, John Linell
- The Harvest Moon by George Mason
- A Cornfield with Figures by John Constable
- The Haywain by John Constable
- The Harvest byVincent Van Gough
Famous literature and poems include:
- The Harvest Moon by Ted Hughes
- Harvest Home / The Hock Cart by Robert Herrick
- The Shepherds Calendar by John Clare
- Summers Last Will and Testament by Thomas Nashe
Things to do to celebrate the Harvest
Start growing. You can grow almost anywhere, from the tiniest pot or a single raised bed, to a large allotment.
A huge range of activities for children of all ages can be planned around gardening and growing and there are many organisations willing to help. Just a few are listed below:
- For a month by month guide to growing, visit Mr Fothergills Seeds.
- The Campaign for School Gardening, run by the RHS, provides a wealth of practical information as well as running fun competitions such as “Young School Gardener of the Year”.
- The BBC and RHS have teamed up and provide some great tips for gardening with children of all ages.
- Gardening with Children runs a club, membership of which allows access to all sort of useful resources.
Make and bake. To preserve the spirit of the corn, the final ears used to be fashioned into corn dollies (also known as 'kirn-babies' (also spelt kern), ivy girls, and mell dolls), and kept in the farmhouse all winter, often having a place of honour at the banquet table, before being ploughed into the first furrow in spring. They were originally fashioned into a likeness of the Greek Goddess Demeter. Sometimes they would be laced with red thread to ward off evil spirits.
Making Corn Dollies © Gillian Nott
Today, corn dollies are woven into a variety of shapes including chandeliers, horns and horseshoe. Some of the most collectable of all agricultural crafts, these days they are often made by hobbyists and handcrafters. The Eden Project Website shows you how to make your own corn dolly.
Get involved with bread. Harvest sheaf loaves were made from the grains harvested from the fields and fashioned into the shape of a wheat sheaf. Why not celebrate the part bread has to play in the harvest by:
- Bake a mini harvest loaf with flour that has been milled as locally as possible from the most locally grown grain possible
- Running a real bead making class, perhaps to teach a traditional local recipe - fun, tasty and messy hands-on learning for children
- Run a tasting class to show that real bread isn't generic and different types work with different foods and drinks
- Organising a competition for the best design for a Harvest loaf
- Visit a local bakery
- Visit a local wind or watermill
Learn more! Visit a Ploughing Match to watch how it's done, or an Agricultural Show. There are several museums that have exhibitions focused on working farms and agricultural including the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Acton Scott Working Farm and the Chiltern Open Air Museum.