by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 1982, A.S. XVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
The American Thanksgiving is one of the most famous of the fall holidays, started in 1622 by the Pilgrims in the New world, it was not a product of the mind of Governor Bradford, but has its roots dating back to antiquity. This essay will explore those roots.
Harvest festivals are as old as civilization itself, dependent as it was on the annual gathering of the crops. The ancient Greeks had the festival of Thesmophoria, dedicated to the goddess Demeter, and celebrated in November by married women only. The similar Roman feast was Cerelia, dedicated to the goddess Ceres, celebrated on October 4.
The oldest continuing harvest celebration is the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles. Other names for this feast are: Succoth and Ingathering. Tabernacle and Succoth both derive from words meaning tent or shelter. While originally the harvest feast of the Canaanites, the Hebrews adopted it to their own ends after conquering Canaan. Lasting seven or nine days, activity centers around a specially build hut next to the house; this hut symbolizing the tents they lived in while they wandered for forty years.
The English harvest festival is called Harvest Home, and dates back to the Saxons in the ninth century. In Scotland, it is known as the Kern. These festivals began, not with the gathering of the crops, but with the end of the reaping.
In Northumberland, when the last sheaf of grain had been cut and stood on end, the sickle was lain down, and the reapers were now said to have “go the kern.” A cry then sent up, and an image dressed in a white frock with colored ribbons was raised on a pole. This image ranged from a small doll-like figure, to a large rude construct barely capable of being lifted by one man. All gathered around this “kern-baby” or harvest queen, and formed a processional to the barn, where a large feast was served.
In Scotland, the image was called “the maiden,” and was made of the last sheaf in the field. It fell to the youngest girl in the harvest field to cut the maiden, and dress her up. The maiden was preserved above the chimney piece until the next harvest. In northeast Scotland, the maiden was known as the “clyack or cailleach,” both meaning old women. At the harvest feast, the cailleach was placed at the head of the table, toasted to, and even danced with.
To the south, in England, the last handful of grain was not cut, but tied up, and called a “mare.” The reapers then threw their sickles at it, attempting to cut it down. The first one to succeed would cry out, “I have her!” The rest would reply, “What have you?” “A mare, a mare, a mare” the first would reply to his neighbor’s query. “What will you do with her?” the rest would then ask. “We’ll send her to John Snooks.” would be the final answer. (John Snooks being the possible name of one the neighboring farmers who had not yet finished his reaping). This is called “Crying the Mare.”
The bringing in of the last load to the barn was also a source of much festivity, surviving recently as the hayride. The wagon, known as a “hock-cart” or “horkey,” was often escorted by a pipe and tabor. A poem by Robert Herricks, written around 1640, describes the scene:
“Come forth, my Lord, to see the cart
Drest up with all the country art.
See, here a Mauken, there a sheet,
As spotless pure, as it is sweet.
The Horses, Mares and frisking Fillies,
(Clad all, in Linnen, white as lilies.)
The Harvest Swaines, and Wenches bound
For joy, To see the Hock-cart crown’d.
About the Cart, heare, how the rout
Of Rural Younglings raise the shout;
Pressing before, some coming after,
Those with a shout, and these with laugher.
Some blesse the cart; some kisse the sheaves;
Some prank them up with Oaken leaves:
Some crosse the Fill-horse; some with great
Devotion stroak the home-borne wheat:
While other rusticks, lesse attent
To Prayers then to merryment,
Run after with their ;breechs rent.”1
Among the songs that were sung while bring in the cart, the following has survived:
“Harvest home! Harvest home!
We’ve ploughed, we’ve sowed,
We’ve reaped, we’ve mowed,
We’ve brought home every load.
Hip, hip, hip, harvest home!”2
In Central Europe, the end of the harvest was celebrated by the farm workers giving a wreath of grain and flowers to the farm owner. The owner, in turn, would host a feast. In Germany, this wreath is known as “Erntekranz.” In the Polish version, know as Dozynki, the wreath would hand on the wall until the following harvest. The Bohemian festival, Obzinki, has an added attraction. In some versions, the woman who bound the last sheaf was called the Baba. In other versions, the Baba was a doll made of grain, decorated with flowers and ribbons, The Baba would have the place of honor on the last wagon-load of the harvest. In some cases, towards the end of the feat, the Baba would be splashed with water to insure rainfall for the next crop.
While the primary aspect of Thanksgiving is that of the harvest, a Day of Thanksgiving was often declared for other reasons throughout the year. Two such noted days were for the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the discovery of the gunpowder Plot of 1605. These also serve as roots of the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving.
Luckhardt, Mildred C. Thanksgiving Feast and Festival. New York: Abington Press, 1966.
Patrick, J. Max, ed. The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick. New York: New York University Press, 1963.
Schauffler, Robert. Thanksgiving. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1941.
Sechrist, Elizabeth. It's Time for Thanksgiving. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Co., 1957.
Walsh, William S. Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities. London: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1897.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.