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Harvest Festival is one of the oldest known festivals. In the UK it is traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This moon is the full moon around the time of the Autumn Equinox in September. However, poor weather can delay harvest, and the Harvest Festival. Unlike the USA and Canada, the UK does not have a national holiday for Harvest Festival.
The celebration of Harvest in Britain dates back to pre-Christian times when the success of the crop governed the lives of the people. Saxon farmers offered the first cut sheaf of corn to one of their gods of fertility, in order to safeguard a good harvest the following year. The last sheaf was thought to contain the Spirit of the Corn, and its cutting was usually accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of an animal - often a hare caught hiding in the corn. Later, a model hare made from straw was used to represent the continuity of the Spirit. This practice eventually led to the making of plaited 'corn dollies', symbolising the goddess of the grain. These were hung from the rafters in farmhouses until the next year. When the harvest was in, a celebratory supper was held to which the whole community was invited.
These traditions continued after christianity arrived in Britain, sometimes in a slightly different form, and there were ceremonies and rituals at the beginning as well as the end of the harvest and church bells were rung on every day of the harvest. A corn dolly was made from the last sheaf of corn harvested - a figure made of plaited straw, which was held aloft and carried with great ceremony to the celebrations - and it often had a place of honour at the banquet table, and was kept until the following spring. The horse bringing the last cart load was decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons. A magnificent harvest feast was held at the farmer's house and games played to celebrate the end of the harvest.
The tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. This led to the custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service.
The traditional ways of celebrating the harvest still survive today in rural communities. Nowadays, children also take gifts of fruit and vegetables to church and present them during the harvest service whilst the harvest hymns "We plough the fields and scatter", "Come ye thankful people, come" or "All things bright and beautiful" are sung. After the service, these gifts are distributed to the elderly and needy of the community.
As British people have come to rely less heavily on home-grown produce, there has been a shift in emphasis in many Harvest Festival celebrations. Increasingly, churches have linked Harvest with an awareness of and concern for people in the developing world for whom growing crops of sufficient quality and quantity remains a struggle. Development and Relief organisations often produce resources for use in churches at harvest time which promote their own concerns for those in need across the globe.