Harvest festivals in the early 20th century UK
By the webmaster’s mother, 1906-2002
To me, as a child in the 1900s and early 1910s, harvest festival was a lovely time. The church would be a picture of colour with all the produce that the congregation would bring to give thanks to God for the harvest. Where this was donated in advance, it was used to decorate the church.
Typical harvest gifts
There would be harvest loaves on the window ledges. They could be of any shape, but the ones that particularly appealed to me were the ones shaped like sheaves of corn or platted into a flattish strip. Hanging from the rail that led to the altar, there would be bunches of grapes and strawberry baskets containing an assortment of fruits, artistically arranged with leaves. (Strawberry baskets were made of thin pliable strips of wood, platted together and their use was not limited to carrying strawberries.) In the centre of the rail would be a glass of water, as water is one of God's gifts that make the harvest possible. On some of the window ledges, would be apples and tomatoes arranged alternately. There would also be plenty of marrows as they made a good show, although to me they were an uninteresting watery vegetable, as my mother never stuffed them with meat or spices. There would also be an abundance of flowers, like Golden Rain, daisies and chrysanthemums.
Where the harvest gifts were placed in the church
Where the harvest gifts were brought in at the time of the service, they were placed at the front of the church so that everyone could see them accumulating. There would be sacks of potatoes, cabbages, onions, and more marrows, mostly grown by allotment holders.
If it should be a hot day, which it often seemed to be, the smell of it all would be overpowering.
The occasional pumpkin was always a talking point with us children, as pumpkins were not part of our normal diet. Most children had never tasted one, and knew them only from the Cinderella fairy tale where the Fairy Godmother turns a pumpkin into Cinderella's coach. For townsfolk, such as us, pumpkins were essentially ornaments for the harvest festival.
There was one obligatory hymn for harvest festival. The first verse goes:
We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land
But it is fed and watered
By God's almighty hand.
It certainly conjured up in my mind the picture of what harvest festival was all about.
What happened to the harvest gifts
It was customary for the church to give the sick of the congregation small parcels from the harvest festival gifts. The rest would go to the local hospital. However, even in those days, my father, who worked at the hospital would say that the harvest festival gifts were not actually wanted. The hospital planned its meals in advance and in bulk and it could not function reliably from the unpredictable quantities and types of what might or might not be gifted to it. Consequently much of the food either went bad or was given to the hospital staff. Once my father was given a pumpkin from which my mother made pumpkin pie. She cut up the pumpkin into small pieces, added sugar and spices, covered it all with pastry and baked it in the oven. I can't remember whether we liked it. We probably didn't because it would have been a new taste.
Nowadays, gifts of perishable goods are discouraged at harvest festivals, which is understandable but does spell the end of a beautiful tradition. I am sure that the old people of the parish would still appreciate the small gifts even though the large organisations would not.