No one can be certain when and where our ancestors started the custom of giving thanks for a successful harvest.
A custom which was once termed ‘harvest thanksgiving’ in the United Kingdom but is often called a ‘harvest festival’ in our increasingly-secular contemporary society. What is certain is that people all round the world have held some kind of thanksgiving celebration since before the dawn of recorded history; and, as the Wikipedia website puts it, “A harvest festival is an annual celebration that occurs around the time of the main harvest of a given region. … Ample food and freedom from the necessity to work in the fields are two central features of harvest festivals: eating, merriment, contests, music and romance are common features of harvest festivals around the world.”
Mankind’s wish … should that be ‘need’? … to lead an organised life means that there is a degree of flexibility in the appointment of a date for harvest thanksgiving, for we have chosen to rely on the phases of the moon to set the day. It is the Sunday nearest to the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox … the day when exactly twelve hours separate sunrise from sunset … which means it is a close-run thing between September 7 and October 5 in 2014, the full moon on September 9 being fourteen days before the equinox while the full moon on October 8 is fifteen days after that event. But the Sunday closest to September 9 is September 7 while that closest to October 8 is October 5; and, since the earlier date is sixteen days before the equinox and the latter date is twelve days after, October 5 wins this year. Is that clear? But many people and organisations will choose a different date anyway!
Our cousins across the Atlantic seem nowadays to be more enthusiastic about harvest thanksgiving than are we in these islands; and perhaps this verse from the Bible … one among many that might be quoted … goes some way towards explaining this. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Timothy 4:4) Creationism is a religious doctrine with more followers in the United States than it enjoys here, despite the fact that almost everyone here knows these lines from one of the most familiar of all hymns, “All things bright and beautiful, / All creatures great and small, / All things wise and wonderful, / The Lord God made them all.” We may sing them, but do we really think about their meaning?
My brother-in-law lives in British Columbia, and this advertisement is typical of events being organised there at this time. “The Armstrong Spallumcheen 14th Annual Harvest Pumpkin Festival is presented by the Chamber of Commerce in partnership with businesses and community groups. … It is a great place to bring your family and friends for fun and there is something for everyone at this event. … Visitors are more than welcome to try their hand at Pumpkin Carving, pet a mini goat at the petting zoo, enter a family favorite (sic) in the baking contest or enter a team in the ‘Great Pumpkin Catapult’ event.”
celebrations may be rather more muted: but churches and schools across the United Kingdom will feature displays of food … especially farm and garden produce … which is our usually distributed among less-prosperous residents in the district after a celebration. However, recent years have seen a growth in the number of appeals to remember people in developing nations at this time who are in need of the basic necessities of life; and as we reflect on our general prosperity at this time of harvest thanksgiving, we might indeed spare at least a thought for the many millions for whom ‘harvest thanksgiving’ has no meaning.