Harvest Home?

“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.


7 thoughts on “Harvest Home?

  1. It’s also interesting to look at the impact of harvest time in terms of geopolitics and war. Historically, some wars ground to a halt over harvest season, because each side had to gather in food for the winter and following spring and summer. At other times, an unscrupulous foe would send in raiding parties to burn the harvest before it could be gathered in, thereby starving their opponent into submission. Also, blockade warfare (e.g. Britain against Napoleon, Britain against the Kaiser, Britain against Hitler) was intended to prevent your enemy from getting food elsewhere if he couldn’t grow it himself.

    It’s only in relatively recent times that we’ve separated war from the harvest. I’m not sure that was good for humanity, either . . .

    • Submarine warfare (Germany against Britain, US against Japan) had much the same intentions as blockade warfare.

    • One of the very unintended consequences of armies requisitioning livestock for war (oxen, mules, and horses to pull military vehicles) was that people could neither harvest nor plow, nor get crops to market. And soil fertility dropped because of the loss of manure. That’s part of why Hungary, Austria, Bohemia, Germany and other places started having food shortages within months of WWI starting. Crop yields continued to decline from loss of soil fertility until the early 1920s. No wonder the Germans were so desperate to find a fertilizer to replace manure.

      • I read the US Army’s official history of immediate post-WWII situation in Germany, and the farming/harvest situation was pretty dismal then as well. With the war ending on 8 May and German completely broken as a functioning state, the US calculated the likelihood of getting any kind of farming organized that summer in order to even have a harvest versus the number of people to feed the following winter, and the equation was not balanced. Plus there were other displaced people flooding in from the east, away from the Soviets. It helped that the basic German, former Nazi or not, was pretty industrious, but it was still a tough situation and food had to be imported. Not everyone in the US was in favor of propping up the Germans either.

        During my NATO assignments I was with older German officers who were kids during WWII, and they had interesting stories. My American supervisor invited me (single then) to his house for Thanksgiving, and one of those older Germans came as well. As we passed corn around the table, he remarked that at the end of the war he and his village were starving and the Americans brought corn from the US for them to eat. Corn is what Germans feed their cattle, so they thought it was part of their punishment for losing the war that they had to eat like cattle!

        One of my American buddies had a German landlord who hated the British. It turns out that at the end of the war this area of Germany near the Netherlands was in British hands, and the Brits let the Dutch come over and take all the crops and other food they could find away from the local Germans.

  2. That’s coming here… And sooner than we want, as fewer and fewer farmers are left to raise those crops. The multinationals are ruining the land in their chase for profits, knowing they can buy more land and move on, without real impact on their bottom line. That fallow land? Who cares… Until there isn’t enough good land to raise crops. Sigh…

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