The first celebration of harvest in any church dates back to Sunday 1st October 1843, when the eccentric Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. He used bread made from the first cut of corn at communion. It was this event that led to the traditional custom of decorating the church with home grown produce each year.
The original celebration of harvest in Britain dates back as far as pre–Christian times when the success of the annual crop was of paramount importance.
Saxon farmers offered the first cut sheaf of corn to the ‘Wen’, the god of fertility, in the hope of safeguarding a good harvest the following year. The last sheaf was also thought to contain the spirit of the corn. The making of plaited ‘corn dollies’, symbolising the goddess of the grain, 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.
Harvest festivals are traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This moon is the full moon which falls in the month of September, at or around the time of the Autumnal Equinox, which is about 23rd September in the United Kingdom.
Harvest Festival used to be celebrated at the beginning of the Harvest season on 1st August and was called Lammas, meaning ‘loaf Mass’, especially in Scotland. This custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, and nowadays we have harvest festivals at the end of the season. The traditional Harvest supper came about when the farmers celebrated the final gathering of the corn on Michaelmas Day.
Our own churches celebrate harvest by asking the congregations to bring non-perishable goods that can be distributed amongst the elderly and needy after the celebrational service.