Custom survived: Harvest festivals

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As the autumn draws in, it is difficult to avoid piles of produce piling up at churches, community halls and schools, all of these being collected for annual harvest festivals which bring colour and poignancy to the drawing days.

Shine on harvest moon

For the medieval period the harvest was a major event. Every village would celebrate bringing in the harvest usually in some harvest home event and quite often a large harvest supper – with much feeding, drinking and associated activities. It was these associated activities which caused many within the church to look at supressing these events. However, others realising the need for a moment of reflection at this time looked for other alternatives.

Thus unlike other customs the origins of the custom is well recorded. It was in 1843 that the Reverend Robert Hawker established a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. The custom was firmly established as Christian event adopting Victorian hymns such as We plough the fields and scatter, come ye thankful people come and all things bright and beautiful. The church was decorated with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service a tradition which continues today. The service remained a local event until 1854 when the Revd Dr William Beal, Rector of Brooke Norfolk was the first to hold a Harvest Festival. He noted his aim was to:

to put a stop to the disgraceful scenes which too often characterise the close of harvest, and to the system of largess, which gives rise to cases of the grossest description.”   The Times at the time stated more politely that:  “The attempt to put an end to the system of public-house harvest feasts, in which neither wives nor children can join, appears in this instance to have been eminently successful.”   

Another early adopter of the custom was Rev Piers Claugton at Elton Huntingdonshire in or about 1854. By 1875 the Lincolnshire Chronicle recorded St Mary’s Church at Stamford indicating in 20 years how far it could spread.

Reap what you sow

An earlier account is recorded at Plumtree in 1880 in The Nottinghamshire Guardian where a new organ had been installed and attracted considerable interest:

“The service commenced with the harvest hymn, “Come, ye thankful people, come”, sung as a processional. Tallis’ Festal Responses were used in the service, the first part of which was intoned by the Rev. A. Marshall rector of Heythrop, Oxon, and formerly curate of Plumtree; the latter part being taken by the Rector. The first lesson was read by the Rev. F. Sutton, rector of Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire; and the second lesson by the Rev. H. Seymour, rector of Holme Pierrepont. The Proper Psalms, 144  and 147, and the Canticles were sung to Single Anglican Chants. The anthem was “Ye shall dwell in the land” (Stainer), the bass solo in which was sung by the Rev. A. Marshall, and the treble solo by Archibald White, of S. Werburgh’s Church, Derby.”

It continued with:

“A very eloquent and able sermon, which was listened to with marked attention by an appreciative congregation, was preached by the Rev. the Hon. Wm. Byron from the text “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,” – Ephesians 4:3 – from which, connecting it with the events of the day, he delivered a most admirable and practical discourse on the beauty and necessity of harmony and concord in the parochial and domestic life.”

It was recorded that:

“The church was very tastefully decorated with the usual flowers, and fruits, and corn, and produce, which are so general at our Church Harvest Festivals. Plumtree is now amongst the most beautiful of our Notts. churches, and is well worthy of a visit by all who value a hearty service, and appreciate beauty of colouring and artistic design in ecclesiastical decoration.”

By the 1900s it had spread considerably both geographically and ecumenically being described in Horsham Sussex’s Congregation church:

“which was very tastefully decorated for the occasion with flowers, fruit and vegetables”

In the Sheffield it is recorded in Daily Telegraph Sheffield that it was already being described as the:

 “The harvest festival season in Sheffield is now in full swing. In churches and chapels all over the city preachers are drawing the old familiar themes.”

The Berwickshire News and General Advertiser recorded that Etal church:

“was beautifully decorated with fruit, flowers, corn, and vegetables, by Rev. R. and Mrs Simpson.”

Throughout the 20th century it had become firmly established as part of the church’s calendar across the various denominations. Today the focus may have moved from celebrating directly the village harvest to a general celebration of thanksgiving for ‘our daily bread’ to recognising the need of others beyond. So nowadays the displays of food with inedible gourds and sheaths of wheat is far more about ‘arrangements’ than providing food.

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