The Feast of the Ingathering, England

In England, the Autumn Equinox is traditionally known as Harvest-Home; in Scotland, Kirn. In the north of England, the name is Mell-Supper.

In the southern counties of England, labourers elected from among themselves a lord’ who made all the terms for work with the farmers and took the lead with the scythe. He made all the rules and all addressed him as “My Lord”. Disobedience to the ‘lord’ was punished by fines, and he was first to eat and drink. In Buckinghamshire, a lady as well was elected. But the ‘lady’ was also one of the workmen.

The grain last cut was brought home in a wagon called the Hock Cart, surmounted by a figure formed of a sheaf with festive dressings. “A presumable representation of the goddess Ceres”, notes the 19th -century English folklorist, Robert Chambers. There were musicians, singing and dancing.

In Lincolnshire, hand bells were rung by those riding on the last load, and singing:

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!

It was a favourite practical joke to ambush the cart and drench the party with water.

Competitions were held, in the north of England, for the best harvesters (called a mell, from Fr. mêlée).

The very last sheaf was laid down flat and cut by ‘the bonniest lass’ (the Har'st Queen) for a Corn Baby (corn doll). It was the centrepiece of festivities and at the table that night, and usually preserved in the farmer’s parlour for the coming year. Note the similarity to this and the ancient Latvian harvest ritual of Mikeli (September 22).

In Hertfordshire, the final sheaf was tied up and erected, called a Mare, and reapers took turns at throwing their sickles at it, to cut it down. The successful reaper cried out “I have her!” “What have you?” cried the rest. “A mare, a mare, a mare!” he replied. “What will you do with her?” was then asked. “We’ll send her to John Bloggs,” or whoever, referring to some neighbouring farmer who had not got his harvest in. This was called Crying the Mare. The reference is to the wild horses that used to range over the commons and cause damage.

In Devonshire the reaper would call “Arnack! Arnack!” meaning ‘our nag’, and the last sheaf was called the ‘nack’.

In the Isle of Skye, the last handful at harvest was sent, under the name of Goabbir Bhacagh (‘the Cripple Goat’) to the next farmer who was still harvesting. The deliverer had to be able to escape the consequences of so embarrassing the neighbour.

At the feast following, the song was sung:

Here’s a health to our master,
The lord of the feast;
God bless his endeavours,
And send him increase!

May prosper his crops, boys,
And we reap next year;
Here’s our master’s good health, boys,
Come, drink off your beer!

Now harvest is ended,
And supper is past;
Here’s our mistress’s health, boys,
Come, drink a full glass.

For she’s a good woman,
Provides us good cheer;
Here’s to your mistress’s good health, boys,
Come, drink off your beer!

The one elected lord went out, put on a disguise, came in again, crying “Lar-gesse!” He and some companions went about with a plate collecting money for further celebrations at the alehouse.

In Scotland, today was celebrated as the Kirn (supposed to be from the churn of cream usually presented at the supper). The threshers donned blue and pink ribbons. There was a haggis feast and much dancing to the sound of the fiddle.

All these festivities were antique by Chambers’s time, as Puritanism and commercialism killed off these and other natural feelings of the people.

Chambers, R, (Ed.), The Book of Days: A miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, etc, W & R Chambers, London, 1881 (1879 Edition is online; See The English Year: A Personal Selection from Chambers' Book of Days)