The crisp autumn months point to the end of summer and the start of harvest festival time. The ploughing in the fields, the gathering of fresh produce and the scattering of new seeds are happening all around us, and when the last of the harvest is gathered in, it’s time to celebrate and give thanks.
The celebration of the harvest season dates back to the Pagan times when the yield of the crops determined how comfortable a community would be (or how starving it would be) during winter. As it was such an important event, many farmers began using charms or rituals in the hope that it would encourage a little bit of luck for next year’s crop.
One of the charms that evolved was the kern baby or corn dolly. It was believed that the last harvested sheaf of corn contained the corn’s spirit, so to preserve it a corn dolly or kern baby would be made from the sheaf and kept until the following spring to ensure a good harvest. It usually looked like a little scarecrow, and sometimes it would be dressed up to look like a lady and called the Harvest Queen.
When all the hard labour was done, the farmer would reward his hard-working employees (and himself!) with a harvest supper where a stuffed goose, along with some of their harvested seasonal produce, would be feasted on at the landowner’s home, and there would be a seat set aside for the Corn Dolly, who would arrive in the arms of the labourers from the fields.
Superstitious celebrations are less common among farmers these days. For example Andrew Warcup, who grows crops such as barley and wheat on the Ford and Etal Estate in Northumberland with his brother Guy, says, ‘What we normally do, because I work with my brother and our boys are our labour force, is go out as a family for a harvest supper at the local pub sometime after we’ve finished.’
At Beamish Museum’s annual Harvest Festival and Harvest Home, which will be held on the 4th and 5th October, old traditions abound, with celebrations including the chance to make a corn dolly, traditional harvest recipes and a chance to see how people used to celebrate harvest time. Flowers and vegetables are gathered from the pit village and taken into the church to decorate it, and traditional hymns are sung during a heartwarming service that gives thanks for the wonderful harvest grown on the land.
Seb Littlewood, Head of Rural Life at Beamish Museum, explains the difference between the two events, ‘Harvest Festival is an old tradition, often based around religion and the church community coming together to give thanks for the Harvest Festival. Harvest Home, which we celebrate at our 1940s farm in Pockerley, is more of a party to celebrate the safe gathering of the harvest. It’s food. It’s drink. It’s music.’
Seb thinks celebrating these traditions today is great for the region. ‘I think people love it,’ he says. ‘We try to get communities and groups involved with what we do. Our Beamish Youth Club are really interested and it’s wonderful. Food is a big aspect of people’s lives, it’s one of the harvest traditions and it’s always all over the TV. When they come and see the food being prepared and sample it they get a taste of what would have been going on during the autumn time.’ Details of the event can be found on Beamish Museum’s website and tickets can be bought at the museum on the day or in advance online.
You would think that harvest services in churches would be an old tradition, but of all the harvest traditions it is in fact the newest. It started in 1843 when Reverend Robert Hawker of Morwenstow in Cornwall held a special thanksgiving service for the harvest in his church. The church was decorated with harvested foods and hymns of thanks such as All Things Bright and Beautiful and We Plough the Fields and Scatter were sung. His congregation enjoyed the service so much that it was continued every year, and gradually more churches across the country started to give harvest services.
This tradition continues in many local churches and parishes, with school children making harvest displays at school and going to a local church to sing songs. As Reverend Grover of St Paul’s Church in North Sunderland explains, ‘We remember the harvest of the sea as well as the harvest of the land. At last year’s Harvest Festival, I used the reading of Christ sending people out to be fishers of men, and we spread out a net over the pulpit and made some silver fish to display. Then vegetables and fruit were brought in, so people know we are thanking God for the harvest in all of its aspects.’
Harvest of the Sea celebrations have been held in the North East for centuries. In fact, in North Shields thanks was given for the fishing harvest as far back as the 13th century, when the area was established as a fishing port by the monks of Tynemouth Priory. In recent centuries locals would make their way to the shoreline with a priest to conduct the thanksgiving service. The boats would be blessed for a bountiful harvest and to protect those at sea.
Although the blessing of the boats hasn’t occurred for the last couple of years in North Shields, there has still been a celebration for the fisherman over the autumn harvest months. The Harvest of the Sea event held by the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen will be on 27th September this year and includes a short service outside the mission home near the Fish Quay in North Shields, followed by talks about the fishing industry and the Royal National Mission’s purpose, as well as refreshments and music. For more details, contact the North Shields branch on 0191 257 1316.