Harvest Songs

Most schools maintain the custom of celebrating harvest festival early in the autumn term. This article offers a number of suggestions for activities and resources on the theme of harvest celebrations. These can be linked to topics on food and farming and to subjects across the curriculum.

Ever since primitive man learned to cultivate his own crops, harvest festivals — thanksgiving ceremonies and celebrations for a successful and abundant harvest — have been carried out throughout the world.

The celebration of harvest in Britain dates back to pre-Christian times, when the success of crops governed the lives of the people. Saxon farmers offered the first cut sheaf of corn to one of their gods of fertility to ensure a good harvest the following year. Corn dollies (symbolising the goddess of the grain) were traditionally made from the last ears of wheat to be cut. Kern babies, however, were the last sheaf of wheat to be cut and is bundled up and dressed in white, trimmed with coloured ribbons to represent the spring. When the harvest was collected and stored safely in the barns, a celebratory supper was held to which the whole community was invited. The harvest home feast marked the end of weeks of hard work in the field. In the UK there is no national date for a harvest festival: harvest festivals and suppers are traditionally held near the harvest Moon (the full Moon which falls in the month of September at or around the autumn equinox).

The practice of celebrating harvest festivals in churches began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited the members of his parish to attend a special service of harvest thanksgiving at his church in Morwenstow in Cornwall. This led to the now-widespread custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce.

For information on Christian harvest festivals, the Jewish festival of the tabernacles (Sukkot) and a teaching unit on harvest festivals for RE at Key Stages 1 and 2, see the Standards Site.

See also TeacherNet’s primary assembly on the topic of harvest festivals.

Local traditions and harvest food

In Northumberland, the corn dolly is attached to a long pole and carried home to be set up in the barn, while on the Isle of Lewis, the corn dolly’s apron is filled with bread, cheese and a sickle. French, Slavonic and some Germanic regions use the last sheaf to create a Kornwolf, believed to hold a wolf-like spirit that resides in the last sheaf and provides the life force for the next season.

To find out how to make a corn dolly, visit the Ravenquest website.

Harvest Songs

There were three men come from the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three made a solemn vow
“John Barleycorn must die”

Activity suggestions:

  • Find out the rest of the words and the story of John Barleycorn
  • Are there any other memorable harvest songs?
  • Make up your own harvest song, story or poem

Harvest festivals in ancient cultures

  • The ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival in honour of Min, the god of vegetation and fertility. The festival of Min was held in the spring, the Egyptians’ harvest season. After a grand parade, a great feast was held with music, dancing and sports.
  • The ancient Chinese celebrated their harvest festival on the 15th day of the eighth month. The day was believed to be the birthday of the Moon and special Moon cakes stamped with the face of a rabbit (perceived to be the face of the moon) were baked.
  • The ancient Greeks worshipped Demeter as their goddess of all grains. Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter, the source of all growth and life, withdrew her powers from the Earth during her time of grief. Demeter’s refusal to eat or feed the world until the other gods resolved her conflict with Hades over Persephone brought on winter, and no plants or grains could grow. Because Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds given to her by Hades, she was condemned by the gods to spend half of the year in the underworld and half of the year on earth with Demeter. Every year, when Persephone is in the underworld there is winter, and when she is on the Earth, there is spring and summer.
  • The Romans celebrated the Cerelia festival, where offerings of the first fruit of the harvest were dedicated to Ceres (Demeter in Greek). Some believe the festival was held in October, others say that it took place in April, to coincide with the arrival of spring.

Activity: find out about myths and spirits relating to the harvest in different cultures, present and past.

For more information on harvest festivals in ancient cultures see the Twilight Bridge website.