Although the modern day celebration of Thanksgiving, celebrated each year in the USA and Canada, is relatively ‘new,’ in historic terms, different cultures from the ancient Egyptians to Pagan practices in Europe have celebrated the gathering of the harvest and given thanks for the food it provides. Depending on the country, the timing of the harvest varies, but harvest festivals are associated with Fall.
In the Northern hemisphere, the celebration of a harvest festival traditionally coincides with the harvest moon. The harvest moon is a full moon, which occurs closest to the autumn equinox, which is usually around September 23, but can sometimes occur in October.
Before the 16th century, harvest was the term usually used to refer to the autumn season. In fact, the word comes from old English hærfest, which meant Autumn (the German word Herbst has the same origin and still means Autumn). So hærfest indicated originally the joyful celebration of finally gathering the mature crops. However, as more people gradually moved from working the land to living in towns (especially those who were literate), the word came to refer to the actual activity of reaping, rather than the time of year, and the terms “Fall” and “Autumn” began to replace it.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated harvest festival in the spring in honor of the god of fertility and vegetation, Min. The ancient Romans celebrated harvest festival in the Fall and honored the goddess of corn, Ceres. Both ancient harvest festival celebrations included feasts, dancing, and games. Many other ancient cultures dedicated harvest festival celebrations to deities or higher gods, in thanks to the harvest collected.
In Israel, the harvest festival is celebrated in the form of the Succoth. Succoth comes from the time when the Hebrews traveled to Israel (formerly known as Canaan) and set up living booths along the way. A booth was known as a succah and people ate and worshiped in this space; farmers lived in a succah at harvest time and gave thanks for the harvest.
Today, the Succoth festival lasts for seven days, in September/October, and it is still traditional to build a succah where families gather to give thanks, share meals, and live together.
There have been harvest festival celebrations in Britain since Pagan times but it is now thought of a traditional Christian festival, with the church playing a central role in harvest festival celebrations. Churches are often decorated in fruit and vegetables and traditional harvest festival hymns are sung. Today, some British villages and churches still hold their own harvest suppers. Schools also take an active role in harvest festival celebrations, and often food is collected to be dispersed amongst the less fortunate members of the community.
Earth Religion symbolism is very apparent in fall. Several fall grains and vegetables have special meaning at this time of year:
- Apples: The Celts attributed the powers of rebirth, youth, and healing to this fruit.
- Beans: The Three Sisters in Native American legend were Maize or Indian corn, beans, and squash. After corn, oldest sister, was planted, beans were next so their vines could grow around cornstalks, then squash, the youngest, which grew close to the earth. The way they grew is symbolic of cooperative community survival and mainstays in the tribes’ diets.
- Maize: In August, also the month of the Celtic Lughnasadh, the Green Corn celebrated the first harvest.
- Cornmeal: Symbolizes fertility, healing and powers of people, animals, rituals, and objects.
- Pumpkin: Represents Sun and, according to some Native American tribes, symbolic of personal power.
- Wheat: Celebrated abundance and was used in rituals to give thanks and pray bounty would last until the next year.