Traditional Ways to Thank God for Your Food: Harvest Festivals
Now that we no longer live off the land and can just go to a supermarket to find any food we want any time we want it, we forget how precious it is to have a good harvest, food to secure survival through the dark time of year.
BY: Sandra Garson
Now that we no longer live off the land and can just go to a supermarket to find any food we want any time we want it, we forget how precious it is to have a good harvest, food to secure survival through the dark time of year. Abundant crops have always been humanity’s most coveted prize, the supreme signal of good fortune, so almost every society has devised a special ceremony to express gratitude for its autumn stockpile of nourishment. Our own American Thanksgiving, which features the harvest foods of New England, is in fact a blend of these religious traditions. It used to occur in October, the actual end of the growing season, but early in the 20th Century, pressure from retail merchants led Congress to move the date to the end of November to signal the start of the Christmas shopping season, which could be considered another form of harvest.
Sukkot, from the Hebrew word for "booths" or "huts", arose from the Exodus dictate to celebrate late summer’s fruit harvest, and eventually became a mandatory pilgrimage festival, set days people carried their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem to be offered by the High Priest as a sacrifice to God. Sukkot also fetes the Four Species or special ones. The etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), a palm branch, a myrtle branch and a willow branch are held high while the mantra "Hosha na!" (please save us!), is chanted in a procession around the pedestal from which Torah is read. Jews use Sukkot to commemorate the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the desert, living in temporary shelters harvesting what they could. So for this holiday, a field hut or garden shelter of some sort is constructed of recently gathered stalks, stems, branches, vines, leaves, fruits and flowers. The Plymouth Pilgrims wanted a sacred way to express their thanks for a harvest that meant survival, and saw in the Bible the exhortation to build this harvest hut. So they did, launching our autumn tradition of decorating with cornstalks, pumpkins and dried flowers.
Chinese Moon Festival
Ancient Chinese emperors offered sacrifices to the sun in the spring and to the moon in autumn when vast incense burning was organized and much food given as a sacrifice to the brightest night of the year. By the 7th Century, celebrating mid-Autumn’s moon—the roundest and fullest, turned into a popular and continuing ritual for ordinary Chinese people. Today, instead of the emperor’s elaborate food sacrifice, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, family members sit around a table under the October moon feasting and offering recently harvested food to the moon with prayers for it to watch over absent relatives. The food most commonly offered is the “moon cake”, a round cookie filled with delights like nuts, sugar, sesame, or ham. Its glowing shiny egg wash crust represents the brightness of the dark; its roundness symbolizes ongoing family without end; its sweet interior the joy of life. The Chinese offer moon cakes to relatives and friends as a wish for them to have bright future, happy family and long life.
Germans celebrate Erntedanktag, Thanksgiving Day, on the first Sunday of October. The ritual in cities is a Church service. In the countryside where harvest actually happens, the return of cowherds and shepherds from the mountains is celebrated with herds wreathed in flowers while villagers wear their finery to greet the prospect of milk and meat. In solemn procession, villagers carry a "harvest crown" or Erntekrone made from grain, flowers and fruit to the local church. The better-known festivity is Oktoberfest which celebrates the grape harvest. Villagers hang a green branch or bush above their door if wine from last year’s crop is ready for tasting. In areas that celebrate a hops and barley harvest, the Lord Mayor of the town taps the first barrel of new beer. This unleashes a large parade of colorfully decorated brewers' drays followed by a carnival of beer drinking, eating and singing of joy.
Lugnasa, offering festival of the first fruits, occurs around August 1, halfway between summer solstice and autumn equinox. Samhain, which means “summer’s end”, is celebrated 31 October/November 1, halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, to signal the finality of harvest season and onset of the "darker half" of the year. This moment when plant life dies was believed the moment veils between our world and the Otherworld were thinnest, so the spirits of the dead might easily mingle with the living once again. On this night, also considered New Year’s Eve, these spirits were supposed to help priests predict the year to come. To celebrate Samhain, Druids built huge sacred bonfires to which people brought harvested food and animals to be sacrificed. They came with newly harvested pumpkins hollowed out as lanterns, dressed in animal costumes and ready for a huge communal feast that celebrated the endless circle of life: loved ones who recently died and those born during the past year. Everyone carried some of the fire home to kindle their hearth for winter. Recognize any of these customs? Christians eventually adapted this Day of the Dead into All Hallows Eve, our Halloween.
Throughout Poland, a last handful or clump of uncut grain was always left standing in a harvested field because leaving it was believed to release magical energy that would make next year’s crops abundant. A revered member of the community ceremoniously cut these final plants. Women chosen for the honor wove them with other grain stalks, berries, vegetables, ribbons and flowers into a harvest wreath, and their handiwork was carried in a grand singing procession to the church to express gratitude to God for good crops. After the priest blessed it, the wreath was carried to the highest available authority-- squire, priest, governor -- who offered in exchange a massive thanksgiving feast of local foods (borscht with cream, cucumber salad, sausages, boiled meats and wheat dumplings), which was followed by joyous singing and dancing.
The very first non-native Thanksgiving in North America occurred in Canada in 1578 when the English explorer Martin Frobisher arrived in Newfoundland and gave thanks to the Almighty for his safe arrival in the New World. The actual Canadian Thanksgiving tradition began shortly after with French settlers who came with the explorer Samuel de Champlain, bringing their religious customs with them. They celebrated successful harvests with prayers of gratitude and feasting, generously sharing their bounty with the natives. Their heirs and communities continued celebrating the harvest either in late October or early November until 1879 when November 6 was chosen as the official national Thanksgiving holiday. That timing changed in 1957 when the Canadian Parliament designated the second Monday in October as "a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed." As it happens, the second week of October is typically the end of the northern harvest and around the time of the Harvest moon. It is also America’s Columbus Day.
Native Americans Harvest Moon and Hunters Moon
The aboriginal Americans called the gloriously bright and round full moon after the autumn equinox the Harvest Moon, for it signaled the moment to gather together the magnificent gifts of the Great Spirit: corn, berries, beans, grains, nuts, fish, and small game. Because they had taken these gifts, Native Americans wanted to give, so they used this time to offer ritual praise and thanks to every living thing that had sacrificed its existence to become the food or clothing that would allow them to survive. They celebrated their good fortune with dance, drumming, games and feasting. Afterward the big game hunt began, leading in the Midwest and Northeast to the Feast of the Hunters Moon. This celebration included prayers of thanks with meat food offerings to the Great Spirit to request survival over the long winter to come
Sandra Garson is the author of Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking and How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers’ Market. As a longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism and well-known cook for Dharma centers from Maine to Mongolia, she became the first food historian to explore the Buddha’s influence on how the world now eats. This led to exploration of more religious beliefs about food.