It’s the autumnal equinox, when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the West. The hours of daylight and darkness are almost equal. This year it’s a special one because the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the equinox, coincides with it for the first time in 19 years – and it won’t happen again until 2029.
The harvest moon is so-called because it gives a longer run of moonlight than usual, lengthening the time farmers had to get their harvests in during successive days of the full moon. It also appears larger in the sky than full moons at other times of the year because it hangs lower in the sky due to the Earth’s tilt.
Legends and customs surrounding the equinox and the harvest moon abound. It has its roots in the druidic lore of the Celts. This was the time of year they celebrated in honour The Green Man, the God of the Forest, by offering libations to the trees. Following the equinox the descent into winter brings hours of increasing darkness and chill temperatures as night conquers day. It’s also a period of balanced day and night of the equinox.
Harvest Home was a time to reflect on the past season and celebrate nature’s bounty and accept the end of summer. It marked a time of rest after hard work, and a ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of nature – a time to look back on the achievements of the past year and to plan for the future. The last load of corn would be brought home as the harvesters sang the harvest home song. The farmer would provide a supper for the labourers.
In some areas Crying the Neck would take place. The last sheaf of corn – the neck – was held up by the ‘harvest lord’ who would shout ‘I have it, I have it, I have it.’ The harvesters would ask: ‘What have ee? what have ee? what have ee?’ The harvest leader’s reply was ‘The neck, the neck, the neck,’ so making it clear that the farm had its harvest home.
Another custom was to make corn dollies from the last sheaf. A female symbol of the Corn Spirit these would be carried atop the final load and kept in the house to protect the inhabitants from bad spirits during the long winter. There used to be a few hanging up in the Royal Oak – made by a local farmer – now long gone.
The Celts believed the sun or the corn spirit was trapped in the corn and needed to be set free. The corn dolly or ‘wicker man’ effigy was usually burned in celebration of the harvest and the ashes would be spread on the fields. This annual sacrifice of a large wicker man (representing the corn spirit) is thought by many to have been the origin of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices. We all know what happened to Edward Woodward in the cult chiller The Wicker Man though.
The Christian Church replaced Pagan equinox and solstice celebrations with Christianised ones such as Michaelmas and Christmas. The harvest festival as we know it originated in Cornwall when, in October 1843 the Rev R S Hawker set aside a day to thank God for the harvest.
It’ll be too cloudy to see the moon tonight but have look out anyway, you might be lucky.