The practice of combining a summer holiday with paid work in the fields has all but died out now, but was once a popular way of extending the season. Some say it is the reason for the long school break that persists today.
The popular image of corn ripening under the August sun is supposedly where the expression ‘golden days’ comes from – the phrase having been coined in the 19th century when prices were high and imports low.
England has never observed a thanksgiving for the harvest in the same way as the Americans, but the completion of the annual crop gathering has traditionally been marked by a celebration supper, often comprising several main courses and puddings and accompanied by music and drinking games.
In 19th century Shropshire it was the custom to dress two men in sacks filled with prickly plants and assume the character of the “old sow”.
The gaiety of such events was entirely genuine at a time when farming was a matter of life or death – a successful harvest meant there would be enough food for the winter. Even today, the commercial viability of many farms hinges on this time of year.
For roaming labourers, too, the harvest has long been a dependable source of income, and customs varied from one county to another on how the work was procured. In Norfolk, it was the standard practice for workers to announce their arrival by solemnly dragging their scythes along the ground. A ‘Lord of the Harvest’ would then be delegated with the task of negotiating rates of pay.
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James Mitchinson, Editor