Harvest festival customs;Plants 'r' us;Science

24th September 1999 at 01:00
People have been giving thanks for the harvest since farming first began and the custom is still thriving today in many countries of the world. In the Christian calendar, harvest traditionally started at Lammas tide (August 1), when the first corn of the new crop was made into bread and taken to church to be blessed. It finished at Michaelmas (September 29). Country people believed that the harvest spirit lived in the fields and that as the corn was cut the spirit was gradually driven into the remaining swathes. So the last few stalks were cut and plaited into a corn dolly which presided over theharvest supper and was buried again on Plough Monday (the first after Epiphany - January 6) to work its magic on the growing corn.

Most churches and many schools today hold a service of thanksgiving for the harvest, but the custom only became popular in Victorian times. In 1843 the Reverend R. S. Hawker had the idea of holding a special service on the first Sunday in October in his Cornwall parish. The idea caught on and soon it became the custom to decorate churches with fruit, vegetables and flowers and to sing the harvest hymns written for the occasion.

Oktoberfest (Bavaria) Despite its name, this 16-day festival starts mid-September. (this year on the 18th). Towns and villages in Bavaria celebrate the harvest with processions and parties. It's a time to sing and dance, taste the new season's beer and to eat sauerkraut, dumplings and white sausage Thanksgiving (USA) When the Pilgrim Fathers and their families reached the New World in 1620 it was too late to plant crops for the next year and nearly half died of hunger during the first winter. The survivors celebrated their first successful harvest with a day of thanksgiving, which became a national festival. Today Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.

Shavuot and Sukkot (Judaism) Two Jewish festivals commemorate harvest time. Shavuot, the Feast of First Fruits, falls in mid-May while the autumn feast of Sukkot is celebrated seven days after the corn and wine have been gathered (this year on September 11). At Sukkot Jews remember the return to Canaan after 40 years in the wilderness. They build shelters of branches decorated with hanging fruit, under which they eat during the week-long festival.

Moon cake festival (China) This falls in September when people give thanks for the rice harvest and recall the successful rebellion against their Mongol rulers 1,000 years ago. Families go to the nearest hill to light lanterns and watch the moon rise. When it appears, they eat moon cakes made of lotus and sesame, and fruit.

Rice festival (Japan) Many myths and traditions grew up around theall-important autumn rice crop. It was thought unlucky to eat the newly gathered rice until a ceremony had been held to honour the spirits which guarded it. Processions and banquets marked the occasion and the emperor of Japan presented a portion at the sacred altar. Today Japan marks the harvest with a public holiday when people celebrate the success of Japanese industry and farming.

Baisakhi (Sikhism) This is the first and most important of the three festivals in the Sikh calendar. It takes place on April 13 or 14 and has given rise to a particular style of folk dance called Bhangra. Originally performed by the men of the Punjab, the dancers re-enact the farmer's life from the first planting of the seed to the final harvest. The dance is at once entertainment and gives thanks, and it remains popular among Sikhs today.

Yam harvest (West Africa) Muslims and Christians alike share this summer festival. The occasion is marked by dancing and feasting.

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