Sunday, November 23, 2008

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.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Running with the bulls, English style

Most folks believe the sport of running with the bulls originated in Spain during the 16th century. In fact it’s believed to have been invented by William, Earl of Warren on November 13, 1209 in the Lincolnshire village of Stamford, England.

The story goes like this: the earl was standing on his castle wall when he spied two bulls fighting over a cow in a nearby meadow. The butcher who owned the bulls tossed a bucket of water on them in an attempt to separate the creatures, which only infuriated them. One took off for the village with its owner and his dog right behind.

The earl mounted his horse and galloped after them.

The bull charged down main street with the earl, the butcher and, by now, all the local dogs in hot pursuit. The folks in town joined the fray yelling for all they were worth, waving hats and hurling stones at the animal. Eventually the bull was caught.

The earl was so amused, he donated the meadow to the town. His only stipulation was that every November 13th thereafter, Stamford would conduct a bull run.

And so it did until 1839.

At 10:45AM every November 13th, St. Mary’s Church bells would peel the announcement that the running of the bull was about to begin. Shops closed and the main street was barricaded on both ends with carts and wagons. People lined the street in preparation of the fun.

At 11AM a bull was set loose.

A man in a barrel with both ends knocked out was rolled toward the bull to provoke it. Enraged, it would then charge.

The bull was driven down the main street onto the bridge over the Welland River, then into the stream. If it survived, it was allowed to climb ashore and the chase resumed. Eventually the creature was caught, butchered and the meat sold at a reduced rate to the needy who that night supped on English beefsteak.

Bull running spread to other English towns, the most notable being Tutbury in Staffordshire. By the 1700’s, people were bequeathing money to assure the Stamford bull run continued. For a while, the town held a second run the first Monday after Christmas.

Attempts to end the practice met with resistance. Then, in 1824, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals formed.

The Society brought a lawsuit in 1836 against some of the individuals who participated in that year’s run. The next year, the Stamford run turned into a riot when dragoons waded into the fray brandishing their swords and muskets. By 1839, town fathers had banned the event altogether.

Many believe the English custom of running with bulls originated with the Saxons. November is known as “blood month” -- the time of year when livestock was slaughtered in preparation for winter. Stamford’s bull run also coincided with St. Brice’s Day which was the anniversary of Ethelred’s massacre of the Danes in the year 1002. Or it may have been introduced into England by the Romans in the time of Julius Caesar.

Whatever its true origins, running with the bulls remained a very English pastime for more than six hundred years.