Here in America there is a tradition of holding a Thanksgiving feast in November, as a sort of harvest festival remnant. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that there was actually a sort of cultural war between the New England Protestants and the Pennsylvania-Ohio German immigrants, who celebrated something similar, but two months earlier.
That celebration was called by the Pennsylvania Germans De Ern Karrich; literally “The Harvest Church.” It was more widely known among the English as Harvest Home or Ingathering, was still widely celebrated in the early 20th century (until FDR made Thanksgiving a Federal holiday in 1939), and is still celebrated in places today, especially in the Berks County region of Pennsylvania and surrounding areas (source). By the way, that’s a really cool article, and well worth reading even if you’re not just source-checking.
Although it clearly has roots in the Germanic tradition in both Germany and England, there’s an interesting fork in the road, so to speak, in the latter country. Apparently, up until the mid-19th century in England, Harvest consisted of “degrading scenes with which the close of harvest was too often attended” until several reformers, such as the Rev. William Beal, promoted “the Parochial Harvest Home” starting in the mid-19th century (source). Given the nature of Victorian morality, it’s easy to imagine what these “degrading scenes” might have consisted of — dancing, feasting, and generally enjoying oneself in public. (gasp!)
The Encyclopedia Britannica gives us a little more context for what those pre-reform celebrations might have looked like, and they sound decidedly pagan:
Participants celebrate the last day of harvest in late September by singing, shouting, and decorating the village with boughs. The cailleac, or last sheaf of corn (grain), which represents the spirit of the field, is made into a harvest doll and drenched with water as a rain charm. This sheaf is saved until spring planting.
The ancient festival also included the symbolic murder of the grain spirit, as well as rites for expelling the devil.
Oh, I only wish we had specific sources for those references!
In that description we of course immediately see parallels to the Scandinavian custom of leaving the last sheaf of grain in the field for Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, so that he and the Wild Hunt will pass by the farm without molesting it, as the horse has fodder. Here’s a reference to it in the Orkneys, which are a mixture of Norse and English culture. James Baldwin’s The Horse Fair (1917) mentions the custom in Sweden, Benjamin Thorp’s Northern Mythology (1851) mentions it in several regions of Germany, and the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (1914) places it firmly in England, as well.
And the “symbolic murder of the grain spirit” is a direct reference to the legend of John Barleycorn, which has its own Germanic parallels and deserves an article unto itself. John Barleycorn must die, in order that the beer can be made.
There’s a lot of information on that whole “last sheaf” thing, the corn spirit, corn dollies, and Odin and the Wild Hunt. It deserves its own article, methinks.
Whether parochial or “degrading”, Harvest Home made its way into America early on, becoming a prominent celebration, especially among the Pennsylvania Germans.
According to Gladys M. Lutz, a folk artist associated with the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University:
“It was the custom of these Pennsylvania Dutch to display the fruits of the field, garden and orchard around the altar to thank God for the harvest. Parishioners brought sheaves of wheat and cornstalks to decorate the display of pumpkins, squash, homemade preserves, ears of corn, clusters of grapes, homemade bread and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.” (source)
I find the mention of sheaves of wheat and cornstalks to be quite significant, in the context of what we saw above regarding the last sheaf, Sleipnir, and John Barleycorn.
We also seem to have an end date for this practice, from the laws of small farming villages in England. According to Open-Field Farming in Medieval England: A Study of Village By-Laws by Warren O. Ault (2006), the removal of that last sheaf of wheat, when (presumably) the Wild Hunt had passed and it was safe to do so, was firmly entrenched in law. It had to be, because turning animals loose in the fields to graze on the stubble was a coveted right, and strictly regulated by law:
Village landholders could hardly wait to turn their cattle into the field. ‘No one shall pasture the stubble until all the grain of the whole village is brought in’ is the way one by-law read. Another said, ‘No horse, bull, steer, heiffer, cow or calk shall be fed or feed on the stubble of the fields until the corn is entirely carried away unless they are securely tethered or watched.’ The men of Wimeswold were agreed that there should be no cattle either in the wheat field or hte pea field until the whole crop had been gatehre and carted away; then the cattle ‘may go togeder as thei schud do, in peyn of ech a beast a peny to the kyrke’. But if all must wait until the last sheaf has been carted away should there not be a time fixed for the field to be cleared? In many midland villages a date was set, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. The Feast of St. Michael was the day elsewhere. In certain other villages no precise date was set but ‘the consent of all the tenants’, or ‘the reasonable assent of all’ was stipulated. Some such flexibility was desirable, one might suppose, for the season of harvest varied from year to year. On the day appointed a ‘shack’ bell was sounded, or announcement was made from the pulput on the nearest Sunday. (Ault, p. 42)
Writing as he is about the law and not mythology, it’s understandable that Mr. Ault wouldn’t put these findings together with the folk custom of the last sheaf. We’re obviously seeing a deadline imposed, as one cannot be expected to wait indefinitely for the Wild Hunt to pass, leaving the last sheaf unhewn. It’s especially telling that one of the options is for the animals to graze the stubble while “securely tethered or watched.” This could very well mean the rest of the field could be grazed, as long as steps were taken to ensure that the last sheaf was left for Sleipnir and Odin’s Wild Hunt.
The dates mentioned, by the way, are September 8 (Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin) and September 29 (Feast of St. Michael). Remembering always to apply our 8-day lag for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, we’re only a few days shy of the Autumnal Equinox. So that puts our Harvest Home celebration, which happens “in late September” right at the end of when the Wild Hunt was deemed to be looking for forage.
Harvest Home, then, is not only a celebration of the end of the harvest, but also the end of the danger from the Wild Hunt (for a while, anyway), and the celebration of the grain-god’s death. That’s John Barleycorn in English, and Byggvir in Old Norse. And Byggvir is mentioned in the Eddaic poem Lokasenna.
Now that we’ve established the connection between Harvest Home and the pre-Christian calendar, and the mythological figures of the Wild Hunt and John Barleycorn/Byggvir, we can turn our attention to what those celebrations might entail (aside from “degrading scenes”). Tune in next time!