Harvest Festival is an annual celebration that takes place in Gloucestershire and other parts of Great Britain around the time of the main harvests, usually September or October.
Harvest festivals feature plenty of food, feasting with foods that have been harvested or are seasonal at the time of year. Contests, music, and general merriment are the order of the day with thanks given for the safe harvest home. All over Great Britain, harvest festivals have been held since pagan times. The festival is held on the Sunday that falls closest to the harvest moon. This moon is the autumn equinox, which occurs around the 23rd September but in some years, can appear in October. The celebrations include singing hymns, praying and decorating churches with fruits and foods from the harvest.
Many villages in Gloucestershire celebrate with days devoted to the harvest with fun for all ages and entertainment taking centre stage with live performers and entertainers, crafts, food, amusements and other competitions for adults and children alike.
The celebration of Harvest in Britain dates back to pre-Christian times when the success of the crop governed the lives of the people. Saxon farmers offered the first cut sheaf of corn to one of their gods of fertility, in order to safeguard a good harvest the following year. The last sheaf was thought to contain the Spirit of the Corn, and its cutting was usually accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of an animal – often a hare caught hiding in the corn. Later, a model hare made from straw was used to represent the continuity of the Spirit. This practice eventually led to the making of plaited ‘corn dollies’, symbolising the goddess of the grain. These were hung from the rafters in farmhouses until the next year. When the harvest was in, a celebratory supper was held to which the whole community was invited.
These traditions continued after Christianity arrived in Britain, in a slightly different form, and there were ceremonies and rituals at the beginning as well as the end of the harvest and church bells were rung on every day of the harvest. A corn dolly was made from the last sheaf of corn harvested – a figure made of plaited straw, which was held aloft and carried with great ceremony to the celebrations. The horse bringing the last cartload was decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons. The tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. This led to the custom of decorating churches with homegrown produce for the Harvest Festival service.
The traditional ways of celebrating the harvest still survive today in rural communities. Nowadays, children also take gifts of fruit and vegetables to church and present them during the harvest service whilst the harvest hymn is sung. Other communities celebrate the harvest home in different ways according to custom but the harvest gifts are usually distributed to the elderly and less fortunate in the local areas.