Harvest festivals, like Thanksgiving, have a history that stretches back to ancient Greek women who honored Demeter and Persephone at the festival of Thesmophoria. A harvest festival has been celebrated in Britain since pagan times, the Jewish festival of Sukkot is mentioned in the book of Exodus, and the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival has been celebrated since the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). This week, feel your connection to these ancient celebrations. Create sacred moments or rituals that acknowledge, honor, and express gratitude for the abundance of the universe.
In Britain, farmers would harvest the last crops of the season under the early rising Harvest Moon of September. After this final harvest, farmers would host a harvest supper or harvest festival, and share their abundance with the laborers and community. They would celebrate the harvest festival with praying, singing, and bringing baskets of homegrown fruits and vegetables to the local church. Today, people also donate canned foods to their local church to feed people facing food insecurity.
“Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest-home:
all is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;”
An ancient custom in the UK is Harvest Home, also called Ingathering. Villagers would celebrate the last day of harvest with singing, ribaldry, and feasting. For people in rural communities, a good harvest in the fall would mean they would survive the winter. Many superstitions were developed, and rituals enacted, to ensure a bountiful harvest. For example, rural folks made corn dollies and hung them in their homes throughout the winter, they outfitted a “Kern Baby” in maiden’s dress, and some even had the local clergy bless their fields.
In some areas, folks believed that the last sheaf to be cut held the spirit of the corn. Reapers did not want to cut this final sheaf, so they gathered around it and took turns throwing their sickles at the sheaf, so that whoever cut it was anonymous.
In Cornwall, they “Cry the Neck”. In this ancient harvest custom, the farmer, upon cutting the last sheaf and binding it, would hold it over his head and cry:
“I ‘ave ‘un! I ‘ave ‘un! I ‘ave ‘un!”
The reapers would shout in response:
“What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee?”
The farmer would reply:
“A neck! A neck! A neck!”
Then, all gathered would shout:
“Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck!”
The neck was then kept for good luck.
You can watch a video here about Crying the Neck in a Cornish village in 1970s.
Prayers of thanks for the harvest and a shared feast are common throughout the world. Thanksgiving Day is the harvest festival we celebrate in the U.S.. The Thanksgiving celebrated in the United States comes from the British tradition, brought over by Puritans and Pilgrims. The date on which Thanksgiving was been observed in the US varied from state to state until President Lincoln established the final Thursday in November as the National Holiday, calling for a Thanksgiving for the Union and their continued successes in the Civil War in his Thanksgiving Proclamation. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November.
The traditional foods served at the Thanksgiving meal are mostly native to the Americas, and were first introduced to Europeans in America. These include cranberry sauce, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and turkey. Because potatoes figure so prominently in Irish and English cuisine, one might think that potatoes are native to the British Isles. But no, they are native to the Americas and were first introduced to Europe in the second half of the 16th century.
There are several regional and cultural adaptations to the Thanksgiving menu, with African Americans and Southerners adding mac and cheese and collard greens, Jewish Americans adding kugel noodle pudding, and Mexican Americans adding roasted corn. In Puerto Rico, they eat turkey tamales and pumpkin-coconut crème caramel.
For many, it is custom for family members to take turns saying what they are thankful for this year, thanking God, each other, or just generally expressing gratitude. There is a sense, throughout November, that we acknowledge our blessings, not just for the food we are about to eat, but for family, health, and all the good things in our lives.
Harvest festivals and feasts are a good time to take stock of the seeds you planted earlier in the year, see how far you have come, and what your hard work and fertile soil has grown and created. Recognize the work you have put forth in various aspects of your life. Give thanks for continued guidance from your divine source.
Harvest festivals are also a time when communities come together for the continued health and prosperity of the many. We are reminded that we can ask our family, friends, community, and the universe for what we need. And, in turn, we can share our abundance with others. Now is also a time to celebrate, enjoy, and feel grateful for our many blessings.