Canada celebrates her own Thanksgiving in October, and Germany’s version, called Erntedankfest, is celebrated either at the end of September or in early October. The November harvest festival that the British-American pilgrims would have been familiar with, prior to their emigration, is the Feast of Saint Martin,or Martinmas.
We all know the story from here. Things didn’t go as planned, crops failed, and the Amerindians stepped in with food as a gesture of goodwill.
Today, hundreds of years later, we honor the memory of this story every year with the ritual of the Thanksgiving feast.
But, many Americans aren’t aware that our own Thanksgiving feast has precedent in the ritual and ceremony of Old Europe.
It would be misleading not to point out that virtually all cultures around the world whose societies were built around agriculture had (and many still do have) their own harvest feasts wherein thanks is given to whichever gods are honored in that culture. And this was certainly true of Europe.
Virtually all people in all corners of Europe,barring perhaps hunting/herding societies such as the Saami in Lapland, celebrated the feast of the harvest. In fact, they usually celebrated more than one, as they were often stacked between August and November depending on climate,geography, and the crops grown in the area.
August sees the wheat harvest festival of Lammas which has been resurrected as a religious holiday by neo-Pagan groups. The word Lammas comes from the old Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, meaning “loaf-mass.” Its Irish counterpart was/is known as Lughnasadh, honoring the Celtic god Lugh.
Many regions around the world still have local festivals to celebrate the harvest of crops grown locally. In my region of Upstate New York, for example, the town of Hilton hosts the Hilton Apple Fest, and Naples hosts a grape festival.
Blod-Monath, The Month of Blood
Martinmas, also called Martlemas, is one of the many harvest feasts described above, but it has the important distinction of being the very last one of the year.
The cult of Saint Martin likely came to Britain during the earliest days of Christianity during Roman times. However, with the Anglo-Saxon migration came another period of active paganism in England.
The name is a reference to the final slaughter of the season when the livestock that would not be kept through the winter were killed, and the records indicate oxen were a main animal culled at this time. What could not be preserved was eaten in a great feast.
Martinmas - The Feast of Saint Martin
As time progressed and farming techniques improved,the need for such a large cattle slaughter at Martinmas seems to have lessened.
By the late Middle Ages, the Martlemas beef enjoyed the company of St. Martin’s wine. This also became a time of a great grape harvest and the celebration of new wine. Hence, Martinmas became a time of revelry and merry-making.
While Martinmas was apparently important enough to be given the suffix “mas” or “mass”
(reserved for only the holiest of holidays, such as Christmas, Christ’s Mass), its celebration dissolved soon after the Protestant Reformation.
Crying the Neck - Honoring the Spirit of the Fields
In this context “corn” refers to kernels of wheat and other grains, not American maize.During wheat and grain harvests, often one sheath would be left remaining standing in the fields.
Traditions varied by location, but it would typically symbolize the spirit of the crop,and many local traditions and rituals sprang up around it. Often, the spirit would be dubbed the Corn King or Queen (or both) who must be killed as a symbolic sacrifice.
‘Crying the Neck’ is still re-enacted at harvest time especially in parts of Cornwall. These ceremonies in Cornwall date back thousands of years, but as farming became mechanized towards the end of the nineteenth century, the tradition died out. It was revived by the Old Cornwall Societies in 1928.
Sometimes the corn spirit was seen as amalicious spirit embodying bad luck. This spirithad to be dealt with to ensure the prosperity of the coming season.
The Grain Harvest
In ancient European cultures it was believed that the spirit of the corn lived amongst the crop and was made homeless by the harvest.
A corn doll was made to house the corn spirit and was often ploughed into the first furrow of the new season.
Other traditions involve building a life sized figure out of stalks of grain to represent the Harvest Queen. The figure would be placed in the field during while the workers labored, and then paraded through the town on the final day of the harvest with music and celebration
Similar customs continued well into the modern era. John Barleycorn is one example of a folk song that continues on the theme of the Corn Spirit from the Middle Ages well into modern times, and is still sung today.
(Play the song to the right!)
If the dollies were made from the last sheaf of grain, they would be hung in the home to bring good luck for the coming year.
Remembering Our Forebearers
With our pumpkin pie, zucchini bread, roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet candied yams, minced meat, and so on and so forth; we continue a long tradition of celebrating Nature’s bounty with our families and loved ones.
Our Thanksgiving décor today still places emphasis on the abundance of produce in season at this time of year.
As we partake in our own cornucopia of plenty, lift a glass in remembrance of the celebrations of our forbearers and take pride in knowing we are carrying on traditions that have continued for hundreds of years.
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- Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988.
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- Simpson, J. (1987). European Mythology. Middlesex: The Hamlyn Publishing Group.
- Walsh, M. W. (2000). Medieval English“Martinmesse”: The Archaeology of a Forgotten Festival. Folklore, Vol. 111(2), 231-254