Monday, November 19, 2012

An English Harvest Home

Americans in the United States learn the history of Thanksgiving as school children--how the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621, sharing their harvest with their Native American neighbors, the Wampanoag. Though many in the U.S. think of Thanksgiving as a quintessentially American holiday, harvest celebrations are an ancient and widespread tradition, closely tied to our agrarian past.

In England, the feast of Harvest Home was usually held at the time of the Harvest moon, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (the word “harvest” comes from the Old English word for autumn, “hærfest”). Though Harvest Home traditions varied from village to village, all were meant to celebrate the conclusion of the farming year and the completion of a successful harvest. Typically, the local landowner hosted the celebration, with the head reaper appointed to preside over the festivities as Lord of the Harvest.

A typical feature of Harvest Home celebrations was the arrival of the “hock cart,” the wagon that carried in the final load of the harvest.

"An English Harvest Home" by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm shows a hock cart traveling through a village, having just visited a tavern along the way.
In 1648, the poet Robert Herrick described the cart as “Dressed up with all the country art,” adding, “The harvest swains and wenches bound/For joy to see the hock cart crowned.” The cart would make its way to the celebration with numerous stops at local ale-houses. Often, the cart carried the “corn dolly,” a harvest effigy fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat cut from the fields.

There were folk songs and later hymns associated with Harvest Home, and the festivities included games and dancing. The day culminated in an impressive feast attended by gentry and laborers alike. (As the local landowner, the hero of my regency Ruined by Rumor hosts the Harvest Home celebration for his workers.) The pre-industrial Harvest Home was a high-spirited occasion, one that mingled the expression of gratitude with jovial good cheer. And, even going back hundreds of years, I'll bet there were quite a few merry-makers who ate so much they couldn't wait to unbutton their breeches.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press, and her second regency will be out in March of 2013. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Wendy Soliman said...

Informative post, Alyssa. I didn't know half of that and I'm English! I do remember church harvest festivals very well though.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks, Wendy! I think one reason I enjoy reading and writing regencies is because the regency period straddles the divide between the old traditions that revolved around the farming year and the massive changes that science and industry ushered in during the 1800s. Harvest Home is one of those charming slices of bygone country life.

Leslie Lim said...

I read your blog.I thought it was great.. Hope you have a great day. God bless.