A short address on the meaning of Harvest Festival that I have used, with variations, at fellowship meetings and similar occasions over the years.
Celebrating the gathering of the harvest is something which seems to have taken place around the world, in all cultures and in all ages. It is a response to the universal human condition: without food there can be no life. So harvest is traditionally a time of storing away and setting aside enough food to see one’s family through the winter months, whether they be cold and dark or dry and barren. Modern methods of storing food such as canning and refrigeration and our ability to import food from other countries has rather lessened the impact of the seasons on our diet. If we want to eat green salad and strawberries and cream in the middle of winter, we can. But farmers and farming communities are still very aware of the seasons of the year and are dependent on their regularity and predictability. With all the rain we had earlier in the summer, this year the wheat harvest was late and yields were down, resulting in higher food prices, which has a direct impact on the price we pay for basic goods such as bread.
For all the changes in agriculture and our relationship to the production of food harvest remains one of the most popular Christian festivals of the year, even for city churches where many of the members have never grown anything or visited a farm. But did you know that harvest festival as we celebrate it today is a fairly recent invention?
Although Harvest has roots in biblical tradition, in this country it was largely a secular festivity, mixed up with old pagan beliefs and superstitions. The highlight for many farming communities was the harvest supper, traditionally held at the time of the full moon. But this was not a Christian celebration.
Credit for the invention (or reinvention) of harvest festival goes to Revd Robert Hawker, the wonderfully eccentric vicar of Morwenstow, a village on the northern Cornish coast. The author of the Cornish anthem ‘The Song of the Western Men’, Hawker described his parishioners as “a mixed multitude of smugglers, wreckers and dissenters of various hues”. He was himself a high churchman, although his services were highly original. Emily Clay writoes of Hawker:
“Sometimes he prostrated himself flat on his face on the floor, his arms outstretched. The floor of his church was none too clean either as he scattered it with herbs which were not changed regularly. His curate once took two barrow-loads of dirt and rubbish from the church. Hawker took out the lower panels of the pulpit as he thought the congregation had a right to see the parson’s feet.” Extraordinary Parsons of Devon and Cornwall.
At Hawker’s first harvest festival in 1843 parishioners brought not just fruit and vegetables but also animals that were tethered to the pulpit. Unsurprisingly many fellow clergy were opposed to this innovation but the idea caught on (minus the livestock!) and the practice of harvest festival quickly spread.
In the biblical tradition, harvest is a time for the whole community and no one is to be forgotten.
In Leviticus chapter 19 we read these words:
“When you harvest your fields, do not cut the corn to the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the ears of corn that were left. Do not go back through your vineyard or gather up the grapes that were missed or pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for the poor people and foreigners.”
Sharing the harvest with others can take many different forms. In many churches today people bring gifts of produce which are then distributed to the elderly or the needy. For local organisations such as the Cold Weather Shelters, Drop-Ins and Foodbanks, harvest is an important time when storerooms are replenished with dried, tinned and packaged goods. In rural harvest festivals in this country and overseas the offerings of fresh fruit and vegetables are auctioned off to raise funds for church or community.
In recent years harvest festival has taken on fresh significance with charities and aid agencies appealing for funds and even producing special worship materials for harvest. Contemporary harvest festivals may address issues such as international debt, trade justice, and care for the environment alongside the traditional theme of thanksgiving. These are all important issues and worthy of our attention, but in a society where our food is often taken for granted, we need to heed the advice of the Bishop of Dorchester:
“In such a culture, we need to reclaim the tradition whereby at harvest we thank God for the fertility of the land and for those who work that land to produce our food… at a time of food scarcity and rural poverty, Parson Hawker knew the importance of thanking God for our food and farmers. Circumstances are very different today, but we should not forget the central message of harvest festival”
For more on Revd Robert Hawker visit this site given over to his life and writings.