This is no way a definitive account! I wrote/collated the main body of it last year when I was due to give a talk at a ‘harvest supper’ in a church, and I thought it would be appropriate to give a little of the history and customs of Harvest, particularly in Wales. I’m not quite sure how the talk was received, as it certainly wasn’t the usual ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ or ‘Silver Birch’ that they are used to. I am, if nothing else, more than a tad anarchic when it comes to my choice of ‘readings’ under such circumstances!
People have been giving thanks for the harvest since farming first began in the Neolithic, and the custom is still thriving today in many countries of the world.
In 1912, Alfred Williams, Wiltshire, wrote:
“The in-gathering of the corn-harvest is by far the most important feature of the farm year, especially where there is much arable land, or perhaps it may be all corn in some places, as on the Downs, for instance. If the weather is wet in hay-time and the crop spoiled that may not matter very much; but in the harvest, that is truly tragic! Who does not deeply grieve, apart from the monetary loss involved, to see all that is left of the beautiful corn blackening and rotting in the fields, under the dark rainy skies of October and November, as is sometimes the case, utterly useless for anything but litter and manure, and the ground too wet and sodden to admit of collecting it for that purpose even? It seems as though you have lived the year for nothing then; that all the bloom and sunshine of the spring and summer were mockery; that Nature brought forth her beautiful children but to destroy them.”
In centuries past, the whole life of the Nation of Britain and its agricultural economy depended on the harvest. Even when the harvest had lost some of its economic importance, it still had a deep psychological effect on rural communities.
The word harvest comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘haerfest’ which meant autumn. According to the Venerable Bede, writing in the seventh to eight centuries, September was known to the pagan Anglo-Saxons as ‘Haleg-Monath’, which meant Holy Month, and it can be surmised that this was derived from the religious ceremonies that followed the harvest. However, no records of these ceremonies survived into Bede’s time.
In the Christian calendar, harvest traditionally started at Lammas tide (August 1), when the first corn of the new crop was made into bread and taken to church to be blessed. It finished at Michaelmas (September 29).
The harvest was the time of the agricultural year that the farmer needed the full cooperation of his workers. Thirteenth Century Manorial records show that it was the custom that tenants were paid with refreshments to harvest the lord’s crops, and that in some areas there was a communal meal at the end of the harvest, and these are the earliest surviving records of this practice.
The workers knew that a successful harvest was needed for the economic well-being of the community, and a bad one would harm their chances of employment the following year. During harvest, their wages doubled as the amount of work doubled. Many customs and usages developed over the years which helped to keep the workers amused, gave further financial rewards, or celebrated their successful harvest. The idea that these customs are direct survivors of pre-Christian times, of beliefs in corn goddesses and vegetation spirits, is not supported by the documentary record.
Prior to mechanisation, the mutual aid that existed between farmers and neighbours in the community was vital to the reaping of the crops. The fedel wenith, or reaping party, drew on the pattern of Cymhortha (from cymhorthu – to help), a characteristic of Welsh medieval society. Small-holders would help each other and also the large farms, in exchange for various things they had to give, like the loan of transport or a few rows of potatoes. In this way a system of goodwill and co-operation was built up within the community.
As soon as the last load of grain had been brought into the barn, the reapers and other workers were treated to a feast – the Harvest Supper – provided by the farmer for whom they had worked. In the eastern counties of England this feast was known as a Horkey Supper, while in Wales it was known as ffest y pen, cwrw cyfeddach or boddi’r cynhaeaf.
Whitlock says that in Wiltshire, the golden years of the Harvest Supper were during the second half of the 19th century and suggests that they had largely died out by the turn of that century. The suppers seem to have been quite lavish – or at least they seemed so to the farm workers who attended them. Food was plentiful. In Sussex caraway seed cake was traditional and was served to the workers throughout the harvesting because it was believed that the caraway seed provided the workers with strength and increased their loyalty to their employer, thus ensuring that they could not be enticed away by a neighbouring farmer offering higher wages. As well as seed cake, pumpkin pie and large apple turnovers called “Brown Georges” were served at Sussex harvest suppers.
In Carmarthenshire the supper included a dish called whipod which included rice, white bread, raisins, currants and treacle. In nearby Cardiganshire in 1760, a farmer reported that the feast following the reaping of his rye by about 50 neighbours consisted of ‘a brewing pan of beef and mutton, with arage and potatoes and pottage, and pudding of wheaten flour, about 20 gallons of light ale and over twenty gallons of beer’. After the meal, there was usually dancing to the music of the fiddle, with a plentiful supply of beer and tobacco.
Also in Wales, was the custom known as the caseg fedi, or harvest mare. When all the corn had been reaped except for the very last sheaf, the sheaf would be divided into three and plaited. The reapers would then take it in turns to throw their reaping hooks at it from a set distance and the one who succeeded in cutting it down would recite a verse:
Bore y codais hi,
Hwyr y dilyn hi,
Mi ces hi, mi ces hi!
[Early in the morning I got on her track,
late in the evening I followed her,
I have had her, I have had her!]
The other reapers would then respond with:
Beth gest ti?
[What did you have?]
and the reply was:
Gwrach! gwrach, gwrach!
[A hag, a hag, a hag!]
It was seen as an honour in Wales to be the one to bring down the caseg fedi, and the man who did so was often rewarded.
The plaited sheaf presided at the Harvest Supper, and was often hung in the house to show that all the corn had been gathered in. It could also, in one part of Wales, be put on the cross-beam of the barn or in the fork of a tree.
The ‘caseg fedi’ may have represented the fertility of the harvest condensed into the final sheaf. In one part of Wales, it was recorded that seed from it was mixed with the seed at planting time ‘in order to teach it to grow’. In other parts of Britain, this last sheaf was buried on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (6 January) so that it could work its magic on the growing corn. It is possible that this association of the gwrach, a creature known to steal food, with the cutting down of the last sheaf, represents the triumph of the human forces of agriculture against the chaotic or malevolent forces of nature represented by the gwrach.
Once the grain harvest proper and the Harvest Supper was over, the women could begin gleaning, i.e. scouring the fields for the leftover ears of corn which they could claim and keep for themselves. In many places they elected a Harvest Queen to oversee the gleaning whose role was to ensure that everyone got fair shares. This she did by regulating the start and finish of work either by ringing a hand bell or by giving the word when the church bells rang. The Harvest Queen also had the right to initiate newcomers to the gleaning field by tapping the soles of their boots with a stone.
Today, most churches and many schools hold a service of thanksgiving for the harvest and hold their Harvest Festival on the first Sunday following the Full Moon closest to the Autumn Equinox. However, this custom only became popular in Victorian times.
In 1843 the Reverend R. S. Hawker had the idea of holding a special service on the first Sunday in October in his Cornwall parish. The idea caught on and soon it became the custom to decorate churches with fruit, vegetables and flowers and to sing the harvest hymns written for the occasion.
Harvest has now become a time when people come together to give food to the needy, or to raise money for worthy causes. Thus Harvest still commemorates not just the gathering of the fruits of the Earth, but also the community cooperation that exists and the desire of our own spirits to help worthy causes and to spread the abundance of gifts of all kinds to wherever there is a lack. It is also a time when we can reflect on the successes of our own endeavours, and reap the fruits of our own labours and count our blessings for all that we have in our lives.