In St. Michael's Parish Church on the Carlow Road on Friday 8th of October the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Service will take place. The successful gathering in of the harvest has always been followed by festivities. Farmers down the centuries have traditionally celebrated the last of the harvest work with the harvest supper or in some areas with a harvest party. On these occasions the farm workers, whether hired hands or voluntary workers from the neighbourhood would eat and drink at the farmer's table or sometimes in the barn specially decorated for that purpose. Merry making and dancing was an important part of the harvest celebration and signalled the end of the farmer's year.
The countryman's celebration of the harvest is as old as man's cultivation of the soil. The bountiful harvest secured the farmer and his family over the hard winter months and in joyful celebration the harvest feast came into existence. The tradition continued in good and bad times and many variations of the harvest festivities were to be noted throughout different parts of Ireland.
In parts of County Carlow and South Kildare during the last century the cutting of the last sheaf of corn was attended with great ceremony and superstition. This last piece of standing corn, normally in the centre of the field, was believed to hold the destiny of whoever cut it down. The task was usually entrusted to the females of the area, each of whom were required to have a stroke at it with a reaping hook. The girl who succeeded in felling the remaining corn with one blow was traditionally believed to be destined for marriage within a year.
The last sheaf, when cut, was borne with some ceremony into the farmer's house where it was presented to the woman of the house in return for a promise of a harvest feast for all the workers. In some areas the sheaf of corn was handed over in return for money which was used by the workers to celebrate the end of the harvest in the local public house.
Another tradition associated with County Kildare was "Gleaning" Sunday held on the first Sunday after the middle of August. On that day the farm workers and their families would walk through the fields "gleaning" corn which was made into sheaves to be added to the corn already gathered. The farmer's wife would meanwhile prepare a meal to be eaten by everyone taking part in picnic style in the corn field. Again it was an opportunity for festivities and merriment with the added bonus of ensuring the farmer had every salvageable ear of corn saved.
The church celebration of Harvest Thanksgiving is quite a modern custom but one which has links with the earlier harvest feasts and traditions. It began in 1843 when Rev. R. S. Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall revived the ancient thanksgiving and service of Lammas. This word is derived from an anglo saxon word-meaning "loaf mass" and referred to the first day of the harvest, traditionally the l st of August which the Medieval Church in prereformation days celebrated by bringing newly ripened corn into the Parish Church for the making of the bread of the sacrament. The custom revived by Hawker soon spread to other parish churches and today Harvest Thanksgiving ceremonies form a common and accepted part of the liturgy of the Church of Ireland.
It is customary to decorate the Church with fruit, flowers, vegetables and corn, all of which are subsequently donated to local charities and institutions. Hymns of praise with special reference to the harvest now finished for another year are sung in thanksgiving. The children in the congregation generally bring up to the altar gifts symbolising the fruits of the soil and the labour of man.
It is interesting to note that some of the hymns of Rev. Thomas Kelly are generally included in the Harvest Festival service in our local Church in which he no doubt preached during his time
in Athy. "We sing the praise of Him who died" and "The Heart that once was crowned with thorns" while not harvest hymns are songs of praise which fit easily into the liturgy at harvest time.
For farmers the harvest yields this year may not be as good as expected but for what they have reaped voices will be raised in praise and thanksgiving in St. Michael's on the 8th of October.