Autumn Festivals – Celebrating the Harvest
Seasons change on Earth due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis toward the sun. When the Northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun we get summers in the Northern hemisphere.
In winter opposite is true, the Northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. But on one day during the third week of September, the daylight hours and nighttime hours are about equal.
We call this day autumn equinox. The word equinox means ” time of equal days and nights” and it is the first day of autumn in the Northern hemisphere.
Autumn is the time when daylight decreases day by day and the weather grows colder. Just as spring is the time for planting, autumn is the time of harvest.
Today, as in the past, a series of harvest festivals brighten this season of increasing darkness. Harvest festivals date back to a time when people first began to grow their own food.
To ancient people, a successful harvest was a matter of life or death. If crops were damaged by early frost or rain, entire families might go hungry or starve.
At the time of the autumn equinox, the entire community helped bring in the harvest. People worked during the day, and they continued working at night when the bright harvest moon shone down upon the fields.
Children’s worked alongside their parents, helping their mothers bind the grains into bundles. After the crop have been harvested, the children gathered the stray ears of corn or stalks of wheat that had been left behind.
A successful harvest was a happy occasion. Ancient people held festivals to honor the spirits or gods who brought forth food from the earth.
The United States and Canada celebrate harvest festivals like Thanksgiving. When the tang of autumn is in the air, people of the United States and, on a different date, people of Canada gather to give thanks for the fruits and vegetables, the nuts and grains, and the many treasures of the fertile earth.
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The Greeks gave thanks to Demeter, goddess of agriculture and grains. The Romans worshiped Ceres, the goddess of the corn. Her festival was held each year in October and include music, games and sports, and a Thanksgiving feast. Our word “cereal” comes from the name of this goddess.
The Chinese relied on the movement and phases of the moon to tell when planting and harvest should begin. The Chinese called the moon the Queen of Heaven, and they celebrate her birthday soon after the autumn equinox. To prepare for this holiday, special birthday cakes, round as the moon, were baked from the newly harvested rice. At midnight, when the moon was at its brightest, families gathered to eat the cakes and honor the Queen of Heaven and the Hare of the Moon, her rabbit companion.
The Celts, a people who lived in Great Britain and France more than two thousand years ago, observed only two seasons of the year – summer and winter. Samhain, a Celtic festival that occurred during the end of October, marked the end of the summer season and the beginning of the winter.
But Samhain was not part of either season and was considered outside of time. It was both a harvest festival and an occasion to honor the dead. The Celts thought that on Samhain the spirits of the dead fled the barren fields and came back to visit their living relatives. Places were set at the table for members of the family who had recently died, and the food was left for wandering spirits.
On Samhain, the Celts lit bonfires on top of hills to honor the gods. The villagers took embers from the bonfires back home. To frighten evil spirits that might be wandering around, the villagers dressed in costumes and carved scary faces on their gourds. Some of these customs eventually gave rise to modern Halloween traditions.
The Germanic people of northern Europe also believed that hostile spirits walked on Earth at harvest time. They thought that invisible creatures or animals – gigantic pigs, rabbits, or foxes – might be hiding among the waving grains.
After the harvest, the last sheaf of grains was dressed in clothes and places on a wagon where people laughed and made fun of it. They believed that the spirits of the field had finally been defeated. Even after the harvest was completed, people trembled when the autumn winds blew. They were afraid that Odin, the father of the gods, wanted part of the bounty. From the roofs of their houses, people emptied sacks of flour into the wind so that Odin could have his share.
In England, farmers provided a feast of goose, roast beef, and plum pudding for the harvesters who had helped in the fields. In some places, the last load of corn was decorated with flags and flowers and taken around the parish while the harvesters shouted and sang. Then they drenched the corn with water to show that they no longer needed to worry that the crop would be damaged by early rain or frost.
The village church was decorated with autumn flowers, red apples, golden grain, and orange pumpkins. A loaf of bread, baked from the freshly harvested wheat, was placed on the altar, and people thanked God for the harvest.
The Iroquois, a Native American people who lived in the eastern United States and Canada, performed a Green Corn Dance to give thanks for the ripening of the corn. The dancers were accompanied by singers who also played the water drum and rattles. Corn soup and bread were served, and children played lacrosse, a ball game still enjoyed today. The games and feasting continued for four days.
Like the Iroquois, the Yoruba of Nigeria, West Africa, held special dances in October at the time of the yam harvest. The dancers wore long robes and masks to represent the spirits of their ancestors. They danced in the street and visited the families of those who had died during the year. Newly harvested yam was offered to the dancers before the families were allowed to eat them.
The Jews also remember their ancestors at harvest time. Sukkot is an ancient Jewish harvest festival still celebrated today. During this festival, Jew everywhere thank God for the harvest and for their homeland of Israel. Little huts made from the branches of trees are set up in courtyards, in gardens, or on perches. The huts are decorated with fruits, berries, and wreaths of flowers and covered loosely with evergreen branches. They remind Jewish people of the time when their ancestors wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt and built makeshifts huts out of palm leaves and branches.
Pongal is a three-day harvest festival in southern India. The festival held in January honors the sun and rain that ripen the rice crops. To prepare for Pongal, people paint designs on the walls and floors of their houses. Families cook newly harvested rice in milk.
As soon as the rice begins to bubble, they cry, “Pongal!” which means, “It boils”. Then they add honey, raisins, and butter to make a tasty treat. On the third day of Pongal, Indians honor the cattle. They decorate their horns with fruits and flowers.
While many harvest festivals are celebrations for the entire family, children in Angola have a harvest festival of their own. Each child gathers ripe corn from the field. Then all the children meet in the woods near a stream. They light fires and roast corn on the cob. Everyone tries to steal corn from everyone else. It’s part of the fun!
Now with a lot of advancement in science, we don’t need to put much effort into harvesting, while the machines do most of the harvesting work of wheat, soybean, and rice. In spite of these changes, people still celebrate the harvest. It’s time to be grateful for the many wonderful foods that come to us from all over the world. It’s time to remember how much we depend on the earth and its many gifts.