Harvest thanksgiving is one of the oldest and most joyous of all the traditions our ancestors celebrated. A community’s sense of relief at seeing their crops safely gathered must have been an unimaginable weight off their shoulders; knowing that they would have a greater chance of surviving the coming winter.
Most pre-Christian harvest festivals have either completely died out or have become a shadow of their former glory due to the age of industrialisation and Christianity. Today, harvest festivals are celebrated in churches all across the country and have been in their present form since 1843 when a Victorian vicar had the idea of bringing the tradition back as part of a holy sacrament for his parishioners. However Harvest Festival is celebrated today, we must not forget that it is a relic of our ancient past that is capable of reconnecting us to our folk memory.
The leading role of the harvest celebration was held by Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. In Britain, she was later known as the Maiden, the Harvest Queen, the Kern or the Corn Baby, the Kern Doll, the Ivy Girl, the Neck and the Mare. Sometimes she was just simply stalks of corn dressed in fabric and decorated with ribbons and lace. Whatever her form she could always be found in the centre of harvest feasts and rituals of ancient times.
The Kern Baby, or whatever name she was given locally, was made from the last corn left standing in the field, which was ceremoniously cut with great respect. The act of cutting the last sheaf of corn was such a fearful one that no one wanted the responsibility of cutting down the spirit of the goddess herself. More often than not, this act was left to chance and everyone present at this ritual would all throw their sickles at the same time so as not to leave this responsibility to just one person. In Herefordshire, one of the men would shout, “I have her!”, and the others replied, “What have you?” The reply back was, “A Mare, a Mare, a Mare”. In deep folk memory there has always been an awareness of the cycle of life and death and the sacrifice that it entails.
Once this was done and all the crop was safely brought into the barn, it was finally time to celebrate. The cart which brought home the last of the corn was sometimes called the Hockey Cart and a young girl dressed in white rode the leading horse. Enthusiastic villagers waiting for the cart would throw water over the harvesters as they approached. This might have been a relic of an ancient water ritual to ensure plenty of rain for next year’s crops. A seed cake baked during harvesting was given to the hard workers and was called the Hockey Cake.
The custom of ‘crying the neck’ was once very common in the west of England. Some believe that the origins of the word ‘neck’ may come from an old Norse word for ‘sheaf of corn’ while others believe that it is connected to ‘nix’ meaning water spirit.
While the harvesters were reaping the last of the wheat, one of them would plait several of the best sheaves together into four plaits. After the others had finished working they surrounded the man with the ‘neck’ who then bent down and held it to the earth. The surrounding men would then take off their hats and bow in reverence to the soil. Standing back up again, they all raised their arms and hats in the air, shouting, “The neck, the neck. the neck. Wee yen. We yen, We yen!” (meaning “We end the harvest”). With laughter and hats thrown in the air, the ‘neck’ was taken to the farm house door, where one of the maids would be waiting with a bucket of water. If the man was able to get into the house without passing the front door he could kiss the girl, if not then he had the bucket of water thrown over him. Again this is yet another form of water ritual that continued to be practised right up until the end of the nineteenth century.
After the harvest was in the barn, a Kern Baby was held up high and carried with great ceremony to wherever the harvest feast was taking place. The farmer and his workmen ate and drunk their fill of ham, beef, vegetables and fruit with plenty of cider and beer. Afterwards there were games, singing, dancing and exchanges of gifts. After the feast, the Kern Baby was taken up to the farmer’s house where she stayed until the next harvest celebration. The previous year’s Kern Baby was ceremoniously burnt in the farmyard.
The Kern Baby could still be found many years after the conversion of Christianity in church decorations. A decorated conical figure hanging in the church porch or perhaps a Kern Baby at the end of a church pew.
Most places had their own special way of celebrating the harvest and these customs all went back to pre-Christian times. It was an act of sacrifice to cut the corn and bury the seed, so as to allow the corn spirit to rise again in the spring.
The Ivy Girl of Kent was a human shaped figure made from the best of the corn. In Scotland it was called the Maiden and was cut by the youngest girl among the harvesters. In the north east of Scotland it was called the ‘Cailleach’ or Old Woman and was dressed accordingly. The Cailleach took place of honour at the feast and was toasted by everyone. She was even taken for a dance by some of the young men.
In Bromley, The Horn Dance was a processional dance that started outside the local church at dawn and would last all day long. Touring the countryside and visiting farms, the dancers were seen as bringers of good luck and fertility.
There were six dancers, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, also known as Robin Hood, Maid Marion (the Man Woman), a Bowman who snapped his crossbow in time with the beat and two musicians playing a triangle and a melodeon. The Hobby Horse would also snap his jaws in time with the music. What makes this dance unusual is the six pairs of antlers mounted onto poles and carried by the dancers on their shoulders. The heads and antlers were wooden copies of reindeer heads and three sets were painted black while the other three were painted white. They were so heavy that the dancers had great difficulty carrying them during this symbolic mock battle, moving forward and back with their heads bowed down. The leader of the black antlers then broke away to start the procession once more while the rest of them followed behind in a single file with the Bowman at the tail posing his arrow as if to shoot at the escaping ‘Deer Men’. The Horn Dance goes back even further than we can imagine, a relic of an ancient hunting dance from a time when reindeer roamed these lands. The ‘Man Woman’ who carried two items that represented the male and the female, suggests a fertility rite was once part of this dance. Perhaps the battle of the ‘Deer Men’ represents the struggle between life and death. The Horn Dance only existed as long as it did because the Church adopted it and made it its very own. The dance not only started at the church, but the props were kept there when not in use. The money collected during the day was of course given towards the upkeep of the church.
A Year of Festivals, Geoffrey Palmer, 1972
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978