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What is Harvest Festival?

Harvest Festival is a celebration of all the food grown on our land. Thanksgiving ceremonies for a flourishing harvest can not only be found across the world, but go back a long way.

In Britain, we have given thanks for successful harvests since pagan times. We celebrate this day by singing, praying and decorating our churches with baskets of fruit and food. This is what is commonly known as a Harvest Festival’.

Harvest Festival reminds Christians of all the good things God has given them. This can help them want to share with others who are not as privileged. In schools and churches people bring food from home to a Harvest Festival service. After the service, the food on display is made into parcels and given to those in need.

Why do we have Harvest Festival?

They are a celebration at the time of year when all the crops have been harvested, people celebrate to show that they are grateful for all the food that has been grown. Given the differences in climate and crops, Harvest Festivals can be found at various times throughout the world. Here in Britain it usually occurs during the month of September.

When is Harvest Festival?

Harvest Festivals are traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (about 23rd September). In two years out of three, the Harvest Moon comes in September, but in some years it occurs in October. Unlike Northern America and Canada, the UK does not have a national holiday for Harvest Festival. The Harvest Festival of the Jewish religion is called Sukkot or 'the 'Feast of Tabernacles'. It is celebrated at the end of the year, after Rosh Hoshanah, the third of the great Annual Festivals.

History of Harvest Festivals

The Harvest Festival in Britain used to be celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season on 1st of August and was called Lammas, meaning 'loaf mass'. Farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local churches. They were then used as the communion bread during a special mass thanking God for the harvest. The custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, and nowadays we have Harvest Festivals at the end of the season.

At the start of the harvest, communities would appoint a strong and respected man of the village as their 'Lord of the Harvest'. He would be responsible for negotiating the harvest wages and organising the fieldworkers.

The end of the harvest was celebrated with a feast called a Harvest Supper, eaten on Michaelmas Day. The 'Lord of the Harvest' sat at the head of the table. A goose stuffed with apples was eaten along with a variety of vegetables.

The tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches as we know it today began in 1843 when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service for the harvest at his church in Cornwall. Victorian hymns such as 'We plough the fields and scatter', 'All things bright and beautiful' and 'Come ye thankful people, come' helped to popularise his idea of Harvest Festival and spread the tradition of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service.

Harvest in African countries

It's not just in Britain that people celebrate harvest, African people have always had festivals at the time of harvest. In some parts of Africa, good grain harvests are a major cause for celebration. In Ghana and Nigeria they hold a 'Festival of Yams', to celebrate the Yam crop - the first crop to be harvested. In some southern African cultures they hold a ceremony called 'First Fruits' that takes several days of planning in order to bless the newly harvested crops and purify the people before they eat the foods.

African harvests can occur once or twice a year (and many crops are harvested throughout the year) and can yield crops such as: onions, sweet potato, beans, pulses, peanuts, mangoes, passion fruit, paw paws, maize, cassava, sorghum, millet, spinach and pumpkins. Harvest can also be a time of dissapointment and concern as well as celebration if rains come late or if crops have failed, as many families will depend on their land for their food supply.

When the harvest is good, beans, pulses, maize and millet are all typically dried and stored so that there is enough food to eat in the dry season. If families are able to do this, they can have enough food to eat even if the rains come late. The people that Send a Cow works with are encouraged to save plenty of seeds so that they can plant ready for the next harvest and sow a second batch when the weather is unpredictable. Send a Cow also helps families by giving them livestock, such as cows, so that they can drink and sell milk, use manure on crops and go on to buy other livestock such as chickens. Families then make money from selling milk and eggs, and so they extend the benefits of harvest, meaning that whole families celebrate at harvest time. You can help these families have a successful harvest this year and for years to come by supporting us this year.  

Harvest festival vegetables

Pumpkins and squashes - part of a harvest display

Bean harvest

Beans harvested from around the world

Harvest 2014

Harvest 2014

Read about Send a Cow’s 2014 Harvest appeal

A Harvest Sermon

A Harvest Sermon

Watch our Harvest sermon by new CEO Rev Simon Barnes 

Book a speaker

Book a speaker

Invite one of our volunteers to come and speak to your group about our work and how you can help