5 May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you!
6 The land has produced its harvest; God, our God, has blessed us.
7 God has blessed us; may all people everywhere honour him.
At this time of Year our thoughts in Church turn to our Harvest services, but have you ever thought where our Harvest services come from? Even though we can trace Harvest thanksgiving back to Greek, Roman and even early Jewish times, within church history it is relatively modern.
It was in Morwenstow, which is a village on the north coast of Cornwall. When in September 1843 it's vicar the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, announced, 'God has been very merciful to us this year. He hath filled our garners with increase, and satisfied our poor with bread. . . Let us offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.'
This was the start of what we now think of as the traditional British harvest festival.
Victorian hymns such as 'We plough the fields and scatter', 'Come, ye thankful people, come' and 'All things bright and beautiful' helped popularise his idea of harvest thanksgiving, and the custom of decorating churches with local produce became widespread.
Church goers would often spend a great deal of time decorating their churches. Apples are arranged along window sills; bunches of grapes are hung from unlikely places, while bunches of wheat or barley are made. There are often displays of specially made loaves, trays of eggs and bunches of flowers - even, these days, tinned food.
Each gift represents a 'thank you' for food that has grown during the summer and which will keep the population fed during the coming winter.
In some seaside churches, fishermen bring some of their catch to be part of the thanksgiving. In others, coal miners used to offer the coal they had dug from deep in the earth:
Harvest is, after all, a thanksgiving for all the 'fruits' of the earth. When the festival is over, the food is either given away to those in need or sold and the money given to the poor in this or other countries. Any flowers would have been sent to local hospitals.
Harvest-time is actually one of the world's oldest festivals and was celebrated by the Ancient Greeks, who gave thanks to Demeter the goddess of agriculture, and by the Romans, who called her Ceres.
The Jewish people have celebrated harvest or Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) for over 3,000 years.
Although the Christian harvest festival may be comparatively modern in origin, the celebration of the harvest in Britain pre-dates Christianity.
Farmers would offer the first cut sheaf of corn to one of their fertility gods, in the hope of receiving a good harvest. when the last sheaf to be cut (at the end of the harvest) was thought to contain the Spirit of the Corn, and its cutting was usually accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of an animal - sometimes a hare caught hiding in the corn. Later, the sacrificial animal was replaced by a model hare made from straw - a custom that led to the plaiting of 'corn dollies' which were hung in farmhouses until the following year.
The horse bringing home the last cartload of corn was decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons.
In the days when farming was a largely unmechanized industry, harvesting was a long and tiring job - and often a battle against the weather.
Consequently, its completion was an occasion for much feasting. When the harvest was 'safely gathered in', a celebratory supper was held to which the whole community was invited. For many of the farm workers, this meal, known as the 'harvest-home', was the biggest and best meal of the year until Christmas. The custom survives in the harvest suppers still held in many of our communities today.
However you plan to celebrate harvest have a good one.
Yours in Christ,
Rev'd Robert Sheard
United Reformed Church Minister of Stowmarket, Debenham, Stowupland, Mendlesham & Haughley