Until it ceased to be a communal event with the advent of mechanised agriculture in the 20th century, harvest was central to the month of September. Harvesters demanded “largesse”, a customary payment that could be exacted from the farmer or anyone else who stepped onto land being harvested. Colourful customs attended the harvesting of the last sheaf; “corn dollies”, originally the decorated last sheaf, hung in the farmhouse until the next harvest for luck, are a vestige of this.
A “king and queen of the harvest” sat atop the last haywain, which was accompanied by singing and dancing to the “harvest home” or “horkey”, a splendid feast hosted by the lord of the manor. In the 19th century the harvest home, whose heavy drinking scandalised some, was gradually replaced by a more sedate “Harvest Festival” in church. Robert Stephen Hawker, an eccentric Cornish clergyman, invented the Harvest Festival in 1843. Hawker converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.
Two great Christian feasts dominate September: Holy Cross Day (14th) and Michaelmas (29th). On Holy Cross Day the passion flower is supposed to flower, whose petals and stamen reminded people of the instruments of Christ’s passion. It was dangerous to enter any wood on Holy Cross Day because the devil went looking for nuts. A relic of the significance of Michaelmas remains in the traditional September start to the academic year. In the Middle Ages Michaelmas was a “quarter day” when rents were due and officials elected. The scholars of Oxford and Cambridge chose it to begin their year, spreading thereafter to other educational institutions.
Michaelmas was strongly associated with eating goose – a tradition once more powerful than eating turkey for Christmas lunch today, to the point where eating goose was considered a civic duty. Although the tradition seems to originate in the 15th century, and derives from the fact that geese were at their best at the end of September, the story goes that Queen Elizabeth was eating goose on Michaelmas Day when she heard of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and therefore ordered all English people to eat goose on that day in remembrance. The tradition of the Michaelmas goose faded away at the start of the 20th century.