A shout out for Harvest – the unsung hero of festivals

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Attending harvest festival in our local country church was always a highlight weekend of my childhood year. The ladies of the parish would gather together on a Saturday afternoon to dress the church with all the produce and flowers that had been freely given by local farmers. Bread was baked into wheat sheaves to adorn the altar area and combinations of cut and wild flowers were precariously balanced in vases along the front ledge of the gallery.

Fruit was arranged in large colourful displays, or placed individually between the balusters on the wooden pulpit steps, on window sills and yeah, on any reasonably horizontal ledge with a few inches to spare. Except for the wide altar steps – which the ladies would leave empty because they would be needed during the family harvest festival service the following day.

This beehive of collective activity was a cause for excitement in mini me. Life in the countryside was fairly sedate, although we were blessed with trees to climb, cows in the next-door field, and grass between our toes. Walking the mile from the nearest bus stop to the house took longer in the berry season, when hedgerows were laden with blackberries and raspberries ripe for picking. We walked past freshly ploughed fields, and watched the farmers scatter the seed followed by a bevy of opportunist birds. When the wheat had grown, to initially taller than I was, the combine harvesters rolled in to cut and package the golden goodness into large bales. They were then stacked high onto a trailer and dragged home to barns for safekeeping. Climbing the bales in the barn was another childhood favourite, but that’s a whole other story.

When all was safety gathered in, we also gathered to celebrate Harvest Festival in the church. The church smelled of fruit and flowers, newly baked bread and a dash of wood furniture polish. It smelled perfect. The congregation brought more baskets of food – fresh and preserved – which were taken to the altar during the service and left on the steps as further gifts of thankfulness for living in a country of plenty, with a climate that sustained trees laden with fruit and fields full of vegetables. The farmers, some of whom never stepped into the church from one harvest to the next, sang We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, for it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand with sincerity and conviction. Because whether or not we believe in God, we can all agree that living in a part of the world with a temperate climate is a gift worth singing about.

Service over, the church was swiftly stripped of its bounty and loaded into cars for distribution to the needy, elderly and the local hospital. And harvest festival was over for another year.

But here’s the thing: In contrast to most other celebrations, there are no hi-tech or fancy gifts to wrap, cards to send or merchandise to profit from. Harvest Festival is Thanksgiving in its most basic form. And why, in my opinion, the unsung hero among festivals.

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