Tomorrow 3rd October 2021 St. Mary’s Church with the Community Church in Sticklepath celebrate the harvest festival. This is a tradition going back many years but perhaps not quite a long as we might think…
Before Henry VIII the harvest was celebrated in churches on 1st August at Lammas – ‘loaf mass’. The wheat harvest safely gathered in, a loaf made from the new flour was used to celebrate Holy Communion.
Harvest Festival in Britain as we have known it owes much to Rev. Robert Hawker of Morwenstow who held a special harvest service in 1843. Harvest has been celebrated in our churches and chapels (also schools and pubs) since, with lavish decoration made from local produce. Chapels and Churches in a locality agreed when the harvest services would be, so they could attend each others. Certainly in my great grandfather Albany Finch’s time, a single hard and essentially inedible loaf was baked in the shape of a wheat sheaf and was taken to the Harvest Festival services across a number of chapels over the weeks. A local preacher, Albany was rather embarrassed when one young relative tried to eat the loaf and he had to take the nibbled version to subsequent chapels!
Hymns were a big feature of the harvest celebrations as I was growing up, ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’, ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ and ‘All things bright and beautiful’. Like all good traditions they have their origins elsewhere. For example, a 17 stanza German poem, with some basis in a psalm, written in 1782 by Mattias Claudius, celebrated Paul Erdmann’s harvest home, thanking both the host and God for their generosity. Translated by Jane Montgomery Campbell, it was shortened and, with a few altered words, made more appropriate for the harvest service, it appeared in ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ in 1861 as ‘We Plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land’.
Certainly in my childhood there was still a large amount of home produce brought to chapel for the celebration – from gardens, farms and kitchens, including of course Bert Stead’s jams. The womenfolk particularly would spend hours arranging flowers and decorating the chapel. As it was a special occasion more folk would come to the service than usual. The following day, Monday, a harvest supper was laid on for all comers. A great social event. The produce was given to the poor and needy or sold at a friendly post-supper auction for charity. Local produce featured both in the displays and the supper. In Yorkshire you find Wensleydale cheese served with the apple pie at Harvest supper, rather than Devonshire’s clotted cream.
These days singing traditional hymns is going out of fashion, I am not sure if any of today’s young people will know the words to harvest hymns by heart in their dotage. Now the produce tends to be shop bought non-perishables and collected for food banks or similar charities – not really so very different. Such a sad indictment of our times that in our wealthy nation so many people are still dependant on these sources for their basic necessities.
The Harvest Festival service tomorrow is a great chance to see the fantastic changes made to St Mary’s Church in recent months. It is now a more friendly, comfortable and useable space for the community. I wish I could be there. I wonder if the magnificent harmonium will be accompanying the covid-safe masked singing, or perhaps an electric keyboard?
Not to be missed! The launch of St Mary’s Interactive Heritage Displays, a Short Service of Dedication and cream teas in the village hall after. Put in in your diary now –
Sunday 7th November 2pm