This time of year is celebrated as Harvest Home, or Ingathering – the end of the growing season, and the last burst of outdoor activity as winter approaches. We’re nearly done with harvest here at Seven Trees, but with the help of modern conveniences like refrigerators, we will be processing the harvest for a long time yet. There are still plenty of greens growing, hopefully most of the winter, and the winter squash is just now coming ripe. The winter wheat is in the ground that Patty Pig helped till, and it’s time to plant the garlic we’ll be harvesting next July.
With this continuous cycle of planting and harvesting, you can see why our ancestors made a point to stop and celebrate the milestone of bringing in the last sheaf of grain. Chamber’s Book of Days says this:
The grain last cut was brought home in its wagon—called the Hock Cart—surmounted by a figure formed of a sheaf with gay dressings—a presumable representation of the goddess Ceres—while a pipe and tabor went merrily sounding in front, and the reapers tripped around in a hand-in-hand ring, singing appropriate songs, or simply by shouts and cries giving vent to the excitement of the day.
We have ploughed, we have sowed,
We have reaped, we have mowed,
We have brought home every load,
Hip, hip, hip, harvest-home!’
So they sang or shouted. In Lincolnshire and other districts, hand-bells were carried by those riding on the last load, and the following rhymes were sung:
‘The boughs do shake, and the bells do ring,
So merrily comes our harvest in,
Our harvest in, our harvest in,
So merrily comes our harvest in!
Troops of village children, who had contributed in various ways to the great labour, joined the throng, solaced with plum-cake in requital of their little services. Sometimes, the image on the cart, instead of being a mere dressed-up bundle of grain, was a pretty girl of the reaping-band, crowned with flowers, and hailed as the Maiden. Of this we have a description in a ballad of Bloomfield’s:
‘Home came the jovial Hockey load,
Last of the whole year’s crop,
And Grace among the green boughs rode,
Right plump upon the top.
This way and that the wagon reeled,
And never queen rode higher;
Her cheeks were coloured in the field,
And ours before the fire.’
In some provinces—we may instance Buckinghamshire—it was a favourite practical joke to lay an ambuscade at some place where a high bank or a tree gave opportunity, and drench the hock-cart party with water. Great was the merriment, when this was cleverly and effectively done, the riders laughing, while they shook themselves, as merrily as the rest. Under all the rustic jocosities of the occasion, there seemed a basis of pagan custom; but it was such as not to exclude a Christian sympathy. Indeed, the harvest-home of Old England was obviously and beyond question a piece of natural religion, an ebullition of jocund gratitude to the divine source of all earthly blessings.
The grain spirit was often personified as John Barleycorn, endlessly sacrificed and reborn to keep the people happy and healthy. There are many songs celebrating this cycle, a Seven Trees’ favorite performed by a folk/traditional group, The Johnsons. The lyrics they sing (there are many versions) are here.