The autumn equinox is here and the autumnal mists have arrived, along with the drawing in of the nights and that special autumnal scent emanating from the hedgerows; this year they are especially bountiful.
The harvest festival is celebrated by many around the 21st September but in reality, the harvest begins at Lammas with the grain harvest and continues right through until December, when the last of the apples are harvested.
Locally to us, the harvest very much incorporates apples and hops and with this harvest, there are a lot of traditions incorporated and played out. Cider apples that have not fallen or been blown down by the wind, are knocked from the trees with Ash poles and taken to the presses. In years gone by, the apple juice was cloudy to begin with and was fermented in huge barrels with the addition of meat (pork or beef), rabbits and or quantities of blood to provide the nitrogen to feed the yeasts. It was believed that cider should only be made on a waning moon because to do otherwise would cause the drink to become sour and undrinkable.
Up until around 60 years ago, most farm labourers were paid in cider, with the average allowance being four pints per day. It was customary to pour a little of the cider from your allowance onto the ground as “a drap to the owd mon” (a drop for the old man).
The importance of the cider apple tree was such that it was considered most unlucky to cut one down and it is still within living memory that farmers would throw the placenta from their cows into the branches of the cider apple trees as a fertility charm.
The importance put on the cider apple and the customs associated with it, caused the Bishop of Hereford to complain and in response, “Hell in Herefordshire” was published in Punch:
“The wild white rose is cankered along the Vale of Lugg, There is poison in the tankard,there’s murder in the mug;through all the pleasant valleys where stand the palefaced kine men raise the Devil’s chalice and drink this bitter wine.
Unspeakable carouses that shame the summer sky take place in little houses that look towards the Wye; and near the Radnor border and the dark hills of Wales, Beelzebub is warder and sorcery prevails.
For spite of church and chapel ungodly folk there be who pluck the cider apple from the cider apple tree and squeeze it in their presses until the juice runs out, at various addresses that no one knows about.
And maddened by the orgies of that unholy brew, they slit each others gorges from one a.m till two. Till Ledbury is in shambles and in the dirt and mud where Leominster sits and gambles the dice are stained with blood.
But still, if strength suffices, before the day is done, I’ll go and share the vices of Clungunford and Clun, but watch the red sun sinking across the March again and join the secret drinking of outlaws at Presteign.”
The other great harvest was that of the hops (There is definitely a drinking theme around here…) and this began in August and carried on until mid September and we still have the hop fields but mostly mechanised nowadays.
With the hop picking, another tome of traditions danced in attendance and the two main ones were “Cribbing” and the Hop King and Queen.
Cribbing was the act of throwing any male stranger to the hop field being seized by the women hop pickers and thrown into the cribs (Bins made from wood and lined with sacking for the holding of the hop bines). The unfortunate stranger would then be buried under the hops and only released when he had kissed all of the women and given them money for a drink. There were some overtly sexual overtones to these practices, in which the women take the lead and are afforded much more freedom than they usually enjoyed in a type of role reversal; it therefore seems probable that these practices held onto the older fertility rites of harvest. At the end of the hop picking season however, the unmarried women were thrown into the cribs. but they were allowed to retaliate and throw in their molester if they could.
On the last day of picking, the last and best pole of hops was hoisted. A king and queen were chosen from the hop pickers and the pullers caps were decorated with rosettes, dahlias, asters and sprays of hops, then a procession was formed, with the head pole-puller walking in front of the last load of hops to leave the hop yard. Behind this, followed the King and Queen; the woman dressed as a man and the man dressed as a woman, making it’s way to the farmhouse. Headed by the busheller beading his metal measure to a drum and followed by the pole-bearers, sack holders and the pickers; once at the farmhouse, a feast was prepared and the farmer and his wife were toasted. Again the roles were reversed and it is probable that this was to underline that at this time the boundaries of the worlds were blurred.
We still decorate our kitchens with fresh hops and enjoy their wonderful aroma filling the house and look forward to all of the forthcoming alcoholic beverages!
Other harvests that were important were the nut, acorn, gorse and bracken. In some areas, bracken and gorse were harvested; the bracken for thatching and the gorse for fuel, starting on 1st September and it was forbidden for any to be cut before this date. So, on the evening of the 31st August, the harvesters gathered on the Commons to await the chiming of the church bell at midnight whereupon the families would claim and mark out their area. The following morning, they would all return to start the harvest.
Mid-September brought the beginning of the nut harvest; hazelnuts and acorns. Acorns were gathered to be sold to farmers for winter feed for their pigs and sheep.
The harvest that is not mentioned so much these days, especially by the modern pagan, is the Blood Harvest. In the days leading up to Samhain, the surplus livestock were slain so that the meat could be preserved to feed the family through the winter and it saved on having to find yet more feed for the animals. Only those needed for the next year were kept.
Because a lot of farms and business around here still rely on the apples for the cider and the hops for the beer, harvest time is still very important to us and is far from a token gesture to mark the turning of the seasons. It is real, it is vibrant. And with this reality comes a chance to view our own personal harvests; have we done enough this year to see us through the winter? Is there anything that we can add to the Blood harvest, anything that needs to be slain and cut out of our lives? Have we reaped the rewards for our labour, both good and bad? Because the equinox is a time of balance and the harvest may well give us both good and bad – abundance and scarcity. It is a time of bringing in but also a time of getting rid At the end of the harvest, we can decide what worked best for us and what did not and make plans for the next year in accordance with these insights. For all of the abundance we have reaped, it is a time to say “thank you” and a time to wonder at the magnificence of nature and Her capacity to provide.