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.
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.