The end of harvest must always have been a cause for celebration since it's a time of hard work, often against the clock and the vagaries of the weather, and it's completion must have once meant that people wouldn't starve during the winter.
I can never remember how much of the following I learned from my father, my grandmother and others, and how much I've read from books in the succeeding years, but I know that in Cambridgeshire there was always, in days gone by, a feast to mark the end of harvest. From books I know that this was known as Horkey Night, though I've a suspicion that it was known locally by a slightly different name.
The last load brought in from the field would be topped out with a bough from an oak tree, the Horkey bough, and the horse pulling the cart would also be decorated. In the evening a feast would be held in one of the farm buildings. Food was provided by the farmer and after eating their fill the workers and their families would entertain themselves by singing the old songs and dancing.
And Hawker it was who first introduced the idea of the Harvest Festival into the English church. The celebrations were of course 'sanitised' by the church; the dancing was no more and Victorian hymns replaced the old songs. Whether Hawker killed off Horkey is hard to say; by this time many farm workers across the country had chosen to have a cash payment at the end of harvest rather than a feast. Harvest Festival also made the end of harvest more real to an increasingly urbanised population.
A couple of further random thoughts:
- the idea of a "barn dance" must surely be a modern, urban invention. The barn was the most important building on the farm and would seldom be standing empty, least of all at the end of harvest.
- my grandmother also told me once that the menfolk of the family would only ever go to town (Cambridge, some eight miles away) once a year, at the end of harvest. There they would buy new clothes for the next year. This could perhaps be a survival from earlier centuries when men would be hired by the year. There were fairs known as 'hiring fairs' held in October and the men and women would dress in their best clothes to be hired for the next twelve months' work on the land or in the big houses.
"And after we've reaped it of every sheaf
And gathered up every ear,
With a drop of good beer, boys,
And our hearts full of cheer
We will wish them another good year"