The festivity that occupies the majority of Steve Roud’s chapter on September in his book, The English Year, is Harvest Festival. We have some friends who lived for a while in America and every year they celebrate Thanksgiving. While I’m not all that comfortable with some aspects of Thanksgiving (I’ve read of it described as a time of mourning for the Native American People and understandably so) I do love the act of giving thanks. We don’t do it enough in our society and we have a lot to be thankful for. We planned to have a goose for our Harvest Supper, which I know is a bit of a conflation with Michaelmas, but none could be found. Our lovely local butcher rang round every supplier he knew and no one’s geese would be ready until Christmas. Instead we have settled for a chicken, but a really big one, and we’ll have to pretend. We will be trying out a Harvest Pudding this year though. I found it in a book of old Devon recipes. It’s a traditional steam pudding made with apples. I’m pretty sure it will require custard – mmmm!
It’s funny to read how many of our modern ideas about Harvest festivities are recent inventions. The term ‘corn dolly’ was never used by farmworkers, says Roud, but was actually coined in the 1940s by straw-work enthusiasts who developed rudimentary figures of straw into the more complex dollies we think of today. And those rudimentary figures of straw were never put together for pagan fertility rites but are more likely to be remnants of medieval manorial regulations. Many harvest rituals can be traced back to “stipulations concerning the amount of free hay or corn the peasant could take from his lord’s field after his labours there.” Here’s one example, “If any sheaf appears less than is right, it ought to be put in the mud, and the Hayward should grasp his own hair above his ear, and the sheaf should be drawn midway through his arm, and if this can be done without defiling his garments or his hair, then it is adjudged to be less than is right, but otherwise it is judged sufficient.”
Stephen Moss, in his book, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, describes September as the peak month for autumn migration. Although it will have started as early as July for some birds, and not finish until November for others. It is his description of the hedgerows however, that really resonates with me. The “warm chestnut-brown” of teasels, the “fluffy balls of grey fur” of willow-herb, the “hollow ghosts” of “tall clumps” of hogweed, and the “splashes of orange” signaling “the ripening of rosehips.” Moss recalls crushing rosehips as a school boy so as to get at the yellow pulp which worked very effectively as itching powder when shoved down the back of a classmate’s shirt. I’ll have to try that on Big Dreamer!