Harvest Thanksgiving: A Trans-Atlantic Tradition

     “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in England?” a young American asked me at a suburban High School in Ohio. Difficult to answer, somehow: it sounded rude simply to make the obvious point that people were giving thanks for the harvest across Europe for centuries and centuries before settlers crossed the Atlantic to the Americas. 

     The American Thanksgiving is magnificent: the celebration of the good things that the bountiful land has given to generations. However it should be remembered that the Pilgrim Fathers left Britain and departed for the New World in the 1620s because they sought to create a wholly Puritan form of government, with no possibility of Catholics or Anglicans having any involvement or influence. 

    These Puritans felt oppressed by the thought that Catholicism still lingered in Britain (even though it was illegal to be a Catholic priest, and Catholics were savagely persecuted) and by the fact that the Anglican Church had bishops and some of the outward trimmings of Catholicism. They did not believe in freedom of religion, but simply wanted to create a community from which Catholicism would be completely banished. The New World offered the possibility of establishing their version of Christianity which they believed to be the only right one.

     Viewed from the perspective of today, the Pilgrims’ ideas seem unjust and narrow-minded: certainly their intense dislike of the Catholic Church led them to reject many good things. It  even seems possible that the idea of Thanksgiving was a way to marginalise Christmas –  a feast which, back in Britain,  arch-Puritan Oliver Cromwell  would even try to ban by law. 

     Nevertheless, looking back  over the four centuries that have elapsed  since the sailing of the Mayflower, we can note the emergence in America of a great nation in which a much, much large vision of Christianity has grown and flourished, where successive Popes have been warmly welcomed and where both Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrated with joy. And meanwhile, back home here in Britain we too have religious freedoms that could not have been imagined in the 17th century, a thriving  Catholic Church, and recent great and joyful papal visits. 

     However, in modern-day Britain the whole notion of thanking God for the harvest is, to put it mildly, rather muddled now. Of course for centuries people did it: things began in August with Lammas, the Loaf-Mass, at which the first wheat harvested was brought to church to be given to God. And the harvesting went on through the hot summer days and finished on September 29th, at Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael. The traditional dish was roasted goose -the geese would be sent into the fields to fatten on the gleaning of wheat left over from the harvesting – stuffed with chopped September apples. 

     At the Reformation, many old customs disappeared: that whole incarnational idea of faith and sacraments was forced aside to be replaced with a religion centred on preaching and words, the Commandments and Lord’s Prayer inscribed on the wall of the sanctuary.  The Catholic revival of the 19th century brought things back. Within the Anglican church, the rediscovery of a sacramental idea took many forms and one of these was the revival – really a sort of re-invention – of harvest thanksgiving.

     Thus the Harvest Festival popularised in Queen Victoria’s reign: fruits and freshly baked loaves and sheaves of wheat brought into church as part of splendid decorations, and popular hymns the chief of which became a sort of anthem for a certain kind of Anglicanism:  “We plough the fields and scatter/The good seed on the land…”. It would sometimes be followed by a distribution of food to the Sunday School children or some form of feasting, although this latter might more usually be disconnected from the church and be a community event with hospitality from the local landowner. 

     Roman Catholicism in Britain from the 19th century to the mid-20th was largely urban and there was little if any notion of including thanks for the harvest at Mass. 

     Harvest Festival continued to be a big part of rural life right up until the 1980s and 90s, and it still lingers. Today it is connected with nostalgia, associated with ideas from the early 20th century, grainy photographs of local scenes of stout farmer in bowler hats, or romantic scenes from films with the sound of hymns wafting from a country church. 

     Many country and suburban churches today do have a Festival: fruit and vegetables arranged magnificently against ancient stone walls, children from a local school bringing gifts that will go to a local home for the elderly and so on.  Some Catholic parishes will include thanks for the harvest in the Bidding Prayers.  And a good many schools will have collections of food for the poor, and perhaps a display of produce from a school garden – there are schemes to encourage and reward city schools for teaching children something about how to dig and plant and learn about growing things. 

     But for the vast majority of British people food is something that comes, pre-packaged and probably already cooked, from a supermarket. Vegetables are sold already washed and chopped and wrapped: meat is sliced and packaged, milk is in plastic containers with coloured tops.  If fruit is on display, it must be perfect – vast quantities of apples and tomatoes are thrown away as being the wrong shape or size.    

     I would love a revival of Harvest Thanksgiving in Britain. Bits of folklore remain: when I pick blackberries each year and make jam and jelly or (a family specialty) Bramble Cheese which is a creamy mix of black-berry-and-apple, delicious on buttered toast, someone is bound to remind me not to pick the fruit after September 29th as “the devil spits on them at Michaelmas”. A large Harvest table in our London church groans with gifts to be given to the local project for the homeless – but the organisers specifically ask for gifts of soap and toothpaste and shampoo, and don’t want jam or potatoes, as they already organise regular supplies of food on a large scale. 

     In my childhood in the 1960s food was plentiful but notoriously horrible: quantities of overcooked grey meat and vegetables, all tasting of nothing in particular.  Since then massive immigration and social and cultural changes on a vast scale mean that mealtimes are utterly different. I love today’s food, but mourn the passing of proper family meals: many homes no longer have a table, and all food is eaten on laps or, judging from the crowds at MacDonalds and the local takeaways, it is not eaten at home at all. 

     Perhaps a revival of Harvest thanksgiving would give us the spiritual lift that is needed to teach us anew about food: God’s gifts, human labour, beauty and bounty and gratitude for blessings received and shared. It would be lovely if some years from now I could answer an American high school student with “Yes, in Britain, there are wonderful Harvest Thanksgivings and a whole rich round of traditions that date back centuries and are celebrated in families, schools and churches across the land.”

By Joanna Bogle