Harvest Traditions

The leaves are turning so fast, and as soon as we have the first really good storm, they will be gone. After getting out of the car this morning, I walked to work past a gorgeous old stone church, scuffing through drifts of gold and red leaves. I still haven’t gotten used to the sheer beauty of the countryside here – even though it’s much softer than the dramatic Northern California mountains that I grew up in, the rolling hills and small villages have a stunning beauty of their own.

One of the many things that I love about living in the UK are the remnants of ancient pagan traditions that are everywhere. In the spring, many villages in our area will have well dressing traditions. Peak District Information says:

The blessing of the watersupply, in the form of the well, is an ancient custom which is unique to the Peak District and the surrounding areas such as South Yorkshire and East Staffordshire. The custom had almost died out in the 1950s, but since then it has been revived with great vigour, primarily for the tourist industry.

Some sources attribute the practice to the period of the Black Death in 1348-9, when probably a third of the population of England died of the disease, but some villages such as Tissington were untouched. The local people attributed this to their clean water supply and gave thanks by ‘dressing’ the village wells. However, it seems very likely that the practice goes back much further than this – probably to pagan times – and the fact that many well dressings have a ‘well queen’ suggests echoes of ancient spring fertility rites.

There are displays of tableaus created out of flower petals, the wells are blessed, and I believe there is usually a Queen and her court chosen. It’s lovely.

Right now, however, we are starting to see notices for Harvest Festivals. Since these descendants of ancient rituals are now associated with churches and schools, I haven’t personally seen one, but it seems a lovely tradition.

The traditional ways of celebrating the harvest still survive today in rural communities. Nowadays, children also take gifts of fruit and vegetables to church and present them during the harvest service whilst the harvest hymn ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand’ is sung. After the service, these gifts are distributed to the elderly and needy of the community. Many schools also have a Harvest Festival assembly and the gifts of fruit and vegetables are distributed in the local community.  Harvest Festival UK

As an American, I do love the feeling of ancient traditions being part of the fabric of modern life. I used to think about that at the farm where I used to keep my horse – it had been farmland for ages, and cows and horses walked the same paths from the pastures that I did, back all the way to Henry VIII and before – it had been monastery land that was “acquired” by the crown and given to someone as a really nice perk.  Helping to bring hay in really brought that home – with some obvious changes to the technology used, it has been done on that land for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they all probably gathered for a huge meal afterwards as we did. It’s lovely to feel yourself a part of time.

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