Harvest Festival Facts

One of the side effects of our increasingly urbanised societies is that people begin to become detached from the natural cycle of growth, decay and renewal that previous generations lived by entirely.  A trip to the supermarket in any modest sized town or city offers a huge range of plenitude that even prior decades couldn’t have begun to fathom.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are available in numerous varieties outside of their traditional growing season – indeed for many city dwellers the growing season of many of the foods they take for granted is a bit of a mystery.

As a result, the harvest festivals – once a cornerstone of agrarian village life in the UK – is at risk of becoming an increasingly forgotten oddity.  Celebrated since pagan times, the Harvest festival (from the old English word Haervest meaning Autumn) was a celebration giving thanks to the deities of the age for a successful Harvest – this being the time of year that most crops were extracted from soil and tree in preparation for the coming winter. 

For pre-industrial societies there was a lot to be thankful for – concepts such as crop rotation were unknown and disease not properly understood resulting in such problems as the rapid spread of potato blight in Ireland in the 1800’s. Farming methods were comparatively primitive, relying on back breaking manual labour to sow, raise and harvest.  Crops additionally required many months in the ground before they bore literal fruit and could fall to all sorts of troubles before they made their way to the dinner plate.  War, drought, natural disasters, pests and more could all ruin a crop.

The success of the growing cycle meant food for the winter and survival, so it is little surprise that the harvest took on a religious dimension with ceremonies being held to give thanks for the crops.  Other traditions arose as well such as the “Miel” supper which, until it fell out of favour at the end of the 19th Century, was a traditional meal held by the farmers to which all who had participated in the harvest were welcome. 

Many cultures across the world have their own harvest traditions.  In North America, the tradition morphed from its European Harvest roots to become Thanksgiving, which largely took the place of the former harvest time celebration.  In Israel, the tradition of Sukkot is a celebration of the harvest.  In Bali in Indonesia, small temples made of Bamboo are erected in rice paddies in honour of the rice goddess Dewi Sri.  And in Swaziland, during the festival of Incwala, the people must wait for the King to eat the first fruit before they too can partake of the bounty.

All of these traditions grow out of an understanding in ancestral generations of just how close a village, tribe or people were to the perils of starvation.  It is difficult to imagine these days, living in lands of plenty as we largely do.  Nevertheless even we are not immune – crop shortages due to drought or global warming threaten to raise prices of grain and other foods and what represents an inconvenience at the price of bread to us is completely devastating for a huge part of the world that lives as it always has, one failed harvest away from disaster. 

Perhaps as our planet continues to struggle to feed all seven billion humans upon it, it may be to our peril to forget about the harvest and the cycle of life it represents.  




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