Sunday, October 25, 2015

Harvest Home -- British Thanksgiving

In Britain, the harvest cycle that began on Lammas Day (August 1st) ends at the autumnal equinox in late September. Like Thanksgiving in America, this time of year is associated with the celebration of bounty, and has been since the 6th century.

The term harvest comes from the Anglo-Saxon word haerfest, which means autumn. Harvest Home is held near the first full (harvest) moon in September. The first full moon after that is known as the hunters moon because the fields are bare and easier for hunters to navigate.

Like Thanksgiving in America, Harvest Home is marked by religious services, the gathering of family, and food. The Feast of St. Michael—Michaelmas—occurs this time of year. The goose is associated with Harvest Home because Queen Elizabeth I is said to have been eating one on Michaelmas in 1588 when she received word her fleet had defeated the Spanish Armada. She vowed always to eat goose on Michaelmas thereafter and instructed her subjects to do so as well.

Corn Dollies

Of the many British harvest customs, “corn dollies” are the most interesting. The last of the harvested corn stalks were gathered and tied together in fanciful shapes believed to embody the living spirit of the corn. Often they looked like human women, and are thought to be the image of the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain, Ceres. Corn dollies were kept until the following spring and plowed under during the planting to ensure a bountiful crop.

Sometimes a horse was shaped from the stalks of the first field harvested in an English community. The farmer then passed this “mare” on to his neighbor who worked hard to finish his own field. Once done, that fellow then tossed it into the field of another with the accompanying call “Mare! Mare!” The last farmer to bring in his harvest had to keep the “mare” on display in his home until spring.

In Cornwall, a similar tradition is practiced today. Known as Crying the Neck, the last handful of grain harvested is held high and everyone shouts in celebration.

Thanksgiving in other English-speaking countries

Thanksgiving in Canada is the second Monday in October. Australians celebrate a National Day of Thanksgiving that has more to do with being thankful for life’s blessings than a bountiful harvest. Until 1863, every US president designated one day a year as a general day of thanksgiving. Not always were these associated with bountiful harvests, and often they occurred in December. Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as a permanent holiday to give thanks for fruitfulness. In 1939, however, there were five Thursdays in November. President Roosevelt declared that, henceforth, Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday and so it has remained.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Common Ridings and Beating the Bounds

On Ascension Sunday -- six weeks after Easter or on the first full moon after the vernal equinox --communities in England "beat the bounds." The practice dates back two thousand years, before the advent of surveying. Locals form a procession around the church, manorial and civil boundaries to reacquaint residents with the major rocks, walls, trees and hedges that serve as landmarks. In the old days, landmarks were struck with a willow stick stripped of its bark. Sometimes a young boy was held upside down and his head tapped against the marker stone.

The later custom dates back to pagan times when the body of a sacrificed child was buried in the foundation of a new structure. In addition, Romans used to sacrifice a goat to the god Pan, smear blood on the foreheads of young boys, then whip them around the boundaries.

"Beating the bounds" was particularly important during the Middle Ages. It reinforced property ownership at a time when documentation was difficult and most people could not read. Participation of the Church in this ceremony—the most powerful political entity of the time—lent official credence. The practice developed into a rogation, a religious procession in which fields were blessed and God’s mercy was invoked. It also served to banish the evil spirits thought to inhabit boundary markers.

Common Ridings/Riding the Marches

The Scottish version of beating the bounds is done on horseback in late June. It’s a secular rather than religious ceremony. A young man called the “Cornet” (named after the junior cavalry member who carried the standard into battle) heads the cavalcade carrying the burgh’s flag. He is accompanied by the Right and Left-Handed Men. The Right-Handed Man is the Cornet from the previous year, while the Left-Handed Man is Cornet from the year before that. The ride ends in a “cornet’s gallop” back to town with the Right and Left-Handed Men in hot pursuit of the banner carrier.

Like their English counterparts, the Scots carried branches with which to strike the landmarks. In this case, they were birch rather than willow and called “birks.” If any landmark needed repair, it was attended to. A landmark status report was made to the Crown.

The oldest surviving ride is said to date from 1140 in the Royal Burgh of Lanark. Called Lanimer (Landmark) Day, it has evolved into a week-long celebration that includes horse and foot races, a festival and choosing of a queen. In the old days, first time riders were dunked in the river Mouss which bisects the parish and into which one of the “march stones” was place. The dunking was done to impress upon the newcomer the seriousness of the task.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mothering Sunday

Until the mid-17th century, the fourth Sunday in Lent was known as Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday. (Roughly translated, laetare means "delight" or "joyful.") For that one day, the Church relaxed its Lenten fasting rules in honor of the biblical story about the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Miracle of the Five Loaves and Fishes).

During the Middles Ages, the Church required that, at least once a year, people returned to their local or "mother" churches -- the one in which they were baptized. The fourth Sunday in Lent became the date upon which this was commonly done and the pilgrimage was referred to as going "a-mothering."

Gradually, the secular habit of honoring mothers was grafted onto the religious observance. It began as a region custom in the western counties, and slowly spread to the rest of Britain.

The first known reference to Mothering Sunday is found in the 1644 diary of Richard Symonds:

"Every mid-Lent Sunday is a great day in Worcester, when all the children and god-children meet at the head and chief of the family and have a feast. They call it the Mothering-day."

Mothering Sunday became the one day a year that people "in service" were allowed to return home for a visit. Children would bring their mothers small gifts, flowers, and a simnel cake.

According to Rebecca Edridge in 1822 --

“…members of the same family go to visit the oldest female of their line…The venerable matron on that day sits enthroned, the Queen of the festival.”

Old family stories were told and games played before the cowslip wine and cake were passed out.

Simnel Cakes
Simnellus was a kind of fine wheaten bread the Romans ate during their spring fertility rites. Since at least the time of Edward the Confessor, bakery goods were made on specially occasions from simnel. It was so highly prized that the canon, David de Aqua, willed land in Hertfordshire for its cultivation when he died in the late 12th century.

There are several legends about the origins of simnel cakes. According to one, a married couple -- Simon and Nell -- argued about whether to boil or bake the cake. (They did both.) In another, it was said the cake was invented by Henry VII's baker, Lambert Simnel. The later story is unlikely because Robert Herrick mentions simnel cake in his 1648 poem, To Dianeme: A Ceremony at Gloucester:

I'll to thee a simnel bring
'Gainst thou go'st a mothering
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give to me.

Mothering Sunday by G.D. Rosenthal; Project Canterbury
Mothering Sunday; The Gentleman’s Magazine Library 1731-1868; p. 31
Mothering Sunday, The Scrinium by Rebecca Edridge Vol II; 1822; p.17
Recipe for Cowslip Wine, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management; Chapter 37: Beverage Receipes; p.1817
The Outfit for the Profession of an Austin Canoness at Lacock, Wilts. in the Year 1395, and Other Memorabilia, By the Rev. W.G. Clark Maxwell, M.A., F.S.A.;The Archaeological Journal Vol LXIX No. 273 Second Series Vol. XIX No. 1;By British Archaeological Association, Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; March, 1912; p. 122 -->
Diary of the Marches of the Royal Army During the Great Civil War kept by Richard Symonds; Edited by Charles Edward Long, Trinity College, Cambridge; 1859; p. 27
Hesperides #684: To Dianeme: A Ceremony in Gloucester by Robert Herrick; The Hesperides & Noble Numbers Vol II; Edited by Alfred Plllard; Aberdeen University Press; 1898