By Sarah Pridgeon
I’ve noticed that the fall season in this part of the world is a time of excitement for many people. Whether it’s a love of pumpkin spice or a curious attachment to one’s winter coat, I’m finding the glee attached to these few weeks infectious.
Things, as usual, are not quite the same back across the ocean, where the fall season generally means an increase in drizzle and greater likelihood of foliage blocking the train tracks on your commute back home (I do wish I was joking, but “leaf on the line” is a common excuse for a late train). Out of habit, we Brits greet most changes in weather with abject misery, and autumn is no exception.
We used to celebrate the harvest with great cheer, but these days fewer people are involved in actually gathering their food than they used to be – and failure to gather those crops doesn’t have quite the same dire consequence.
Back in the old days, roaming laborers would seek employment at farms all across the country, sometimes dragging their sickles across the ground to announce their arrival. One of those workers was given the job of Lord of the Harvest, negotiating rates and conditions for his fellow “reapers”.
Those who regularly worked the land, too, would join together to collect all that natural bounty from the fields, ending the harvest with a celebratory supper for all. That, for most people, was the calendar date for fall that nobody wanted to miss.
Of course, this is the old world we’re talking about, which means there are plenty of customs lurking in our back catalog, some with origins that seem nothing short of bizarre. Almost as though we were practicing our culture before we settled on how to do things sensibly.
Corn dolls, for instance. Not an uncommon craft today, they have all but lost the significance they once held, all the way back in pagan times.
Back then, corn dolls were made with the last sheath of the harvest and placed on the banquet table, then kept until the spring to carry the luck of the crop over to the next year. The Saxons, you see, believed that last sheath contained the spirit of the corn.
That corn spirit was known by many names, such as the Maiden. Nobody wanted to be the one to cut down the last sheath, on the basis that the spirit would likely be ticked off with whoever did it, so the reapers would throw sickles at it from a distance until someone got lucky and it fell down.
And then there’s the Egremont Crab Fair, which dates back to the 1200s and is named after the crab apples that were given away in fall by the lord of the manor. Today, locals still throw apples at the crowd from carts during a parade, but that’s not what the event has become known for.
It’s also where the Gurning World Championships originated, almost as long ago, in which contestants place their heads through a horse collar and compete to make the most grotesque, distorted, cheek-twisting faces they possibly can. The winners are usually contestants who have no teeth, as this gives them more wiggle room for their jaws.
Michaelmas, celebrated on September 29, marks the arrival of Christianity to the British harvest. St. Michael is, as I’m sure you know, the archangel who fought against Satan and the protector against the dark of night – fitting for a time when the cold begins to creep in.
The tradition for this annual feast is to eat a fattened goose that was fed on the stubble left in the fields after the harvest, which was once believed to protect against financial need in the year ahead. It follows, therefore, that a lot of focus was placed on the bird, which led to goose fairs all across the land.
One – the Nottingham Goose Fair – still runs today.
Why a goose, I hear you ask? Well, the story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was dining on goose when the news arrived that the Spanish Armada had been defeated without ever landing its men on British soil. She resolved to eat it on Michaelmas Day and the rest of the country followed her example.
We ceased to celebrate Michaelmas Day when Henry VIII got fed up with the Pope telling him he’d had more divorces than he needed and invented the Church of England. Nowadays, we celebrate Harvest Festival instead, bringing our goods to church in thanks for the bounty our land has provided.
Incidentally, St. Michael is also the patron saint of horses and horsemen, which is why there’s an ancient tradition in Scotland that this is the only time of the year when you can rustle your neighbor’s horse and ride it all day, just as long as you return it safely in the evening.
Also up in Scotland, the fall season marks the largest of the world-famous Highland Games, in Dunoon, a test of strength and endurance that has steadfastly ignored the idea of modern inventions for hundreds of years. No javelins and shotputs for these competitors – no, to be a Highland athlete, you must toss an entire tree, throw a giant rock and fling a bundle of straw.
Legend has it that the event dates back to the 11th century, when King Malcolm II called for a foot race all the way to the summit of Craig Choinnich. He was looking for the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the whole event is the massing of the pipes, when up to 20 bagpipe bands will march together to create a cacophony of music that can be heard for miles around. Such a spectacle is the Highland Games that it’s no surprise to find it among the few traditions that earned a place in our modern culture.
Of course, it shares that lofty position with cheese wheel racing, wife carrying and a procession of walking hedges called Jack in the Green and his Bogies, but those, I think, I will save for another story.