British harvest: how long does the season last, when is harvest day, plus history and traditions

Harvest season marks an important date in the farming calendar as crops are harvested for animal feed and food. Our guide to the British harvest looks at the history and traditions of this important annual event

9th August 2018
Harvest crops Credit:  Getty

How do you celebrate harvest? Learn more about harvest in the UK and the history and traditions in our handy guide

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 moon
The awesome sight of the glowing orange harvest moon/Getty


Normally falling towards the end of September, or early October, 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.

How long does the harvest season last?

At their most lavish the meal would brim with several meats, vegetables, puddings, tarts and ale, and would be accompanied by singing, drinking games and much reverie. One Shropshire tradition in the early 19th century was the arrival of the ‘Old Sow’ - two men dressed in sacks that were filled with prickly furze cuttings which barbed anyone they approached. That just left the gleaning, the act of collecting any leftover crops in the field which was carried out by the farm women. All of which was to be conducted by St Michael’s Mass on the 29th September, the signifier for the end of harvest.

Farmers Robert Martin and John Nash harvesting barley at Standard Hill Farm in Elham, Kent, 24th August 1958 Credit: Getty
Farmers Robert Martin and John Nash harvesting barley at Standard Hill Farm in Elham, Kent, 24th August 1958 Credit: Getty

What is the history of the harvest?

By looking back through the history and customs associated with harvest we can see why it is such a crucial date in the country calendar, says Duncan Haskell

Field of crops
Modern technology has speeded up the harvest process, but still marks a time for celebration/Credit: Getty

The word ‘harvest’ comes from the Old English word hærfest meaning ‘autumn’, aptly the season for gathering the food of the land. This was a vital time of year, when success was a genuine matter of life or death. A prosperous harvest ensured that a community would be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months. It’s therefore no surprise that it was also a time steeped in superstition and, if successful, much celebration.  Many of these traditions even pre-date Christianity.

Harvest in Norfolk/Credit: Getty
Technology advances have changed the harvest traditions/Credit: Getty

With technological advances lessening our dependence on the seasons and the number of people working on the land greatly reduced over the last two centuries, surviving practises are now mainly symbolic in nature. Even during the pre-mechanised past it would be incorrect to suggest that there was a uniform approach to harvest or a common set of beliefs and customs, there were vast regional differences throughout the country. What did unite everyone though was the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which harvest was held. What follows are some of the better known examples from the past...

Roaming groups of labourers would seek employment from farms at the start of the season, in Norfolk they would drag their sickles along the floor to announce their arrival. A ‘Lord of the Harvest’ would be appointed and was in charge of negotiating rates and conditions of labour. Leading his workers (‘reapers’) as they scythed the fields, he would be served first at mealtimes.

The church festival that is the most common harvest celebration still held today originated in Morwenstow, Cornwall in 1843, when Reverend Robert Hawker invited the parishioners of his church into his home to receive the Sacrament in “the bread of the new corn.” Whether from the Divine, the elements or the mystical, all help was gratefully received.

Now that most of us neither sew nor reap what we eat, it is almost impossible to imagine how crucial this time of year was in the calendar, but by knowing a little of the history and keeping these traditions alive we are honouring those who depended upon it.

British harvest traditions

Corn dolls

Harvest celebrations pre-date Christianity, but it has always been seen as a very spiritual time to give thanks for the year’s crop. Symbolic corn dolls, made out of the last sheath of the harvest, were placed on banquet tables when parishes had their huge feasts. The doll was then kept until the spring to ensure the continuation of a good crop next year.  This custom began with Saxon farmers, who believed the last sheath contained the spirit of the corn. 

Of special importance were the last sheaves of corn left standing as it was often believed a Corn Spirit resided within them. A descendent of the Roman goddess of grain Ceres, it came to be known by a variety of names such as ‘The Maiden’, ‘The Neck’ and ‘The Mare’ and once scythed would be made into a symbolic corn doll.  First though came the act of actually cutting these final sheaves.

Reapers were anxious not to anger the spirit so they would line up at a distance and throw their sickles until the corn was cut, a time-consuming act which guaranteed anonymity. In the Welsh Borders these straws would be tied into four bunches, to represent the legs of a horse, before the sickle-throwing commenced. In Devon and Cornwall there was much ceremony attached to ‘Crying The Neck’ with the final reaping held aloft by a farmer who was encircled by his workers.  The corn dolls would often be kept above the hearth and, in order to guarantee the success of the next harvest, ploughed back into the land the following Plough Monday. In other regions they were thrown into a neighbouring farm that was yet to finish their own work, a boastful and enraging act.

Corn dollies
An East Anglian Corn Dolly, which are straw works used as part of harvest rituals/Credit: Getty

They would sacrifice this corn along with a hare – normally one hiding in the crop - although later there was no sacrifice and model hares were made out of straw instead. This then led to the making of corn dolls, which were hung up in farmhouses, and which were supposed to represent the goddess of the grain.

Offering thanks for the fishing seasons

The word harvest normally makes us think of agriculture, but many harvest celebrations exist around the country that celebrate another type of reaping. There are about 24 festivals that give thanks for the fishing seasons. In October, in Billingsgate, London, there’s the Harvest of the Sea Thanksgiving, where fish and netting decorate the church. These festivals arose in many fishing towns and villages, where the locals depend largely on fishing for a living. A tradition in North Shields, during the Blessing of the Salmon Fishery, is to give the first salmon catch to the vicar.

Harvest celebrations

From the first harvest celebration, to the last – St Michael’s Mass, on the 29th September, celebrates the end of the productive season. Also known as Michaelmas, it signifies a time when all the harvest should have been brought in. Its beginnings can be traced to the 5th century when the cult of St Michael spread to Western Christianity. During the Middle Ages it was celebrated as a huge religious feast, and the harvest traditions grew from there. Fairs with market stalls and games, and churches decorated autumnal and gold, sprung up around this festive time. People also ate geese on this day, said to bring financial protection for the next year.  

 

 

 

 

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