Somehow, and I am not sure how far back this goes, we have lost the art of really celebrating harvest. It is still a feature of most church years, but that is where it tends to remain for most people. Whilst we might interpret it to be part of the slow industrialisation of our society (I cannot think it was high on the agenda of the wage slaves of 19th century factory life, though there is some evidence it was celebrated in those homes and churches for the poor) this would not explain why continental Europe, and particularly Germany, Austria and France, celebrate it with such gusto, especially the Germans. Germany is the only country I have been to where you can wander into a supermarket in late October and buy cut-price end-of-season harvest decorations. They are more than usually difficult to pack, but 30 euros went a long way in 2006. They have to clear the shelves of course because no sooner has Erntedankfest been celebrated, than it is time for the feast of St Nicholas and then Christmas, and of course these major festivals all have their decorative aspects for homes and shops. Hallowe’en does not, thankfully, get too much of a look in, except on US and UK military bases.
But harvest thanksgiving is one of the only places in the life of our nation where we can give thanks, deeply, for all we are and all we have, to remember the poor, to celebrate another year of good work (yes, WORK is GOOD!), to stop and reflect on the rich human value of working the land, whether it be smallholdings, allotments, gardens or farms, to be grateful for a crop safely gathered in (Do we know? Does anyone tell us? Are we so disconnected with our food that we don’t even know if the 2012 wheat harvest was good, bad or ugly?). Harvest is a reminder of seasonality, the enjoyment that comes from placing restrictions on what we eat so we can enjoy it at a particular time, harvested locally or near-locally. In the parts where we are, the wheat harvest was brought in early, and the bushel weights were lower, as were those for barley. When bread prices creep up this November, don’t say we weren’t warned.
In Germany, they have already celebrated harvest thanksgiving in some places. In Milton Keynes I am still waiting for the leaves to turn to the rich colours of autumn, and of course, the fruit harvest this year has not been the best. Our Harvest Thanksgiving at school is in early October, so hopefully there will still be fruit to bring and vegetables to lift for the occasion. But even if there is little to bring, it is still true, as our children are learning to sing, that:
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord, yes, thank the Lord, for all His love.
One of the most wonderful aspects of harvest is that it is the most human of festivals. More than Christmas or Easter, it would in the past have touched everyone’s life. Everyone had a stake in it, and so the riotous Harvest Home celebrations, homely harvest suppers and rousing retellings of the fate of John Barleycorn became part of its culture. This is why it retains some of its old pagan overtones, and why some evangelical churches give it a miss. But it is an unrivalled opportunity to sing, dance, include children, write new songs, celebrate and be glad, and to reconnect our urban, electronic children with the life that they would likely have been living 100 years ago.
The other aspect of Harvest which is overlooked in one way, but not the other, is the importance of the harvest to the poor. Most of the organisations working in Africa, Latin America and Asia with poor farmers are competing to support schools with fundraising opportunities for their particular cause. This we know and can relate to, and teaching children to give money away and rely on less is no bad thing. However, in a country like ours, where the diminishing rural poor are pretty much out of sight, it is important to remember that a failed harvest here still has a direct economic consequence on people living not more than 500 metres from the boundary of our towns and cities.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Give us today, our daily bread”. This is a plea for the harvest to be sure and certain, but is also in the plural, stretching around the world in its cry to God.