“All is safely gathered in/ Ere the winter storms begin…Raise the song of Harvest Home.” This text is from one of my favorite Thanksgiving hymns, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come.” It combines the timely images of harvest and sorting the good grain from the weeds, and from the end of the Christian calendar and the winnowing of peoples described in the Bible.
What I suspect most of us who sing the hymn tend to forget is that a Harvest Home was a specific celebration in England. Harvest Home is the proper name and refers to the large feast and the rituals associated with bringing the last sheaf of grain in at the end of the harvest, bring the harvest home to the farm.
Different parts of England celebrated Harvest Home in different ways, and those districts that depended on livestock rearing for their living had other feasts. But in general, as the reapers grew close to the end of the last field, the land owner’s household would begin preparing a large meal for all those working in the field, and some livestock would be slaughtered. As the reapers finished, the last sheaf of grain would be shaped into a figure of a corn dolly, or tied to a pole, or woven into another shape, and everyone would process to the farmhouse behind the sheaf. Anything left in the field at this point belonged to those with gleaning rights, or to the livestock.
Again depending on the region, in some places the corn dolly would be put in a place of honor to bring good fortune to the next season, or put in the cribs for the oxen and horses to eat so they would absorb the strength and goodness of the soil and stay sound over winter and spring. Then everyone sat down and ate. It was one of the few times that the landowner, who might be a nobleman, would sit with the hired workers at the same table, although everyone knew he wasn’t really “one of them.” It was the gesture, along with the food and being paid, that was what was important. A smart land owner knew that his people would work better and were less likely to help themselves to crops and produce if he showed at least the minimum of respect they felt due to them for their skill and labor.
And so ale was tapped, beer served, and everyone celebrated Harvest Home. Come winter’s storms and cold, come the illnesses and woes of the cold season, the most important food-stuff had been gathered and preserved ahead of the times of dearth. And perhaps this year, the dearth would be less dear.
Unless you live in an area where farming is still the major source of income for most people, it’s easy to forget just how vital the harvest was and is, and how much depends on it. Our here, where winter wheat is more common, late May and June are harvest season, then cotton later in the year. But when I lived in the central Midwest, everything stopped in October-November as farmers raced to get wheat, soybeans, corn (maize), and other small grains harvested before snow came. The church I attended set up a dedicated prayer team just for the harvest, and I participated one year. Tractors and trucks pulling grain “wagons” had the right-of-way, and I saw strangers acting as safety outriders for late-night deliveries to the co-op, staying behind the wagon with their flashers on because the wagons didn’t have flashers. When the last crop in the field came home, or was safely delivered to the co-op grain elevator, everyone rejoiced.