Thursday, 6 October 2016
Harvest marks an ending. The end of the farming year, the end of the life cycle for plants cultivated and wild. The seeds then mark a beginning - the beginning of the next year as the eternal cycle of life continues.
And as harvest is the beginning of an end, so its end was celebrated with gusto in all rural communities. The time when all men, women and children worked sun up to sun down to bring the harvest home, cementing friendships and a sense of shared struggle which forged a community spirit, was over for another year.
The harvest festival, intended to give thanks to the gods (or later God) for their success and to provide an auspicious start for the new season, is still a ubiquitous aspect of rural life as it has been in cultures worldwide for millennia.
In Britain, the final load was brought home with great ceremony. The horse and wagon were bedecked with flowers and ribbons, and all men and boys would ride atop the wagon and sing hearty songs.
Up! Up! Up! A happy harvest home!
We have sowed, we have mowed
We have carried our last load!
I have ripped my shirt
And teared my skin
To get my master's harvest in!
This was followed by a grand supper where all the workers and their families sat down to tables laden with beef, vegetables and plum pudding. These harvest suppers still survive in some places, although far removed from their original form.
Like many British traditions, the Harvest Home was barely remembered after the First World War. A generation of rural workers lay under foreign soil, and an ancient custom, passed down for generations from old to young, was broken.