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Harvest time – The history of the harvest festival

Harvest time – The history of the harvest festival

Take a look at a modern harvest festival and you’ll no doubt see many ‘urban’ offerings of pre-packed cakes and tins of sweet corn.

It’s so easy to pop down to the supermarket these days we forget that until relatively recently in this country, people’s lives depended upon the success or failure of their crops.

Harvest festivals were a way to say thank you for a good harvest while trying to guarantee the fortune of the next one.

Saxon farmers offered the first cut sheaf of corn to the gods of fertility in order to please them and ensure they were kind the following year.

The last sheaf was used to make a Kern baby; a doll, dressed in white and trimmed with coloured ribbons to represent spring.

Most peasants were tenant farmers who farmed for a landowner. Harvest time meant weeks of back-breaking work, so it became a tradition for the landowner to host a harvest supper as a thank you to the whole community once the harvest was brought home safely. There was no set date, but the celebrations generally took place around the time of the full Moon, known as the Harvest Moon.

Harvest festivals are closely associated with the church, but actually date back to Pagan times. It was 1843 before the Church became involved. The Reverend Robert Hawker invited members of his parish to a service of harvest thanksgiving at his Cornish church. The practice spread rapidly and led to the custom of decorating churches with harvest produce.

Wheat field

The story of John Barleycorn

You may never have heard of him, but John Barleycorn is a character in a medieval folksong. He represents barley, the most important cereal crop of the harvest, and also the alcoholic beverages beer and whisky which were made from it.

In the song John Barleycorn suffers attacks, indignities and death which correspond to the various stages of the harvest such as reaping and malting.

It begins…

There was three kings into the east,

   Three kings both great and high,

And they hae sworn a solemn oath,

   John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and plouh’d him down,

   Put clods upon his head,

And they hae sworn a solemn oath,

John Barleycorn was dead.

The song has many verses and poor old John Barleycorn suffers dreadfully throughout, particularly when he’s ground between the milling stones! But the story has a neat twist as our hero, who’s finally turned to alcohol, wreaks his revenge on everyone who drank him so merrily, and they suffer for their sins the following morning with gargantuan hangovers!

It is a mark of how important the harvest was that there are more versions of this song than any other in the English language!


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