We never celebrated Thanksgiving when I was a child in England. We did celebrate Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.” But we called it Harvest Festival, as native Brits – and most of Europe – had called the Harvest Moon (Google it) time of year since crops were first harvested and thanks given.
Not that we had any vines running around thatch eves in the town of Nuneaton where I grew up on a street of faceless row-houses whose front doors opened directly onto the sidewalk. No vines, no thatch, not even a postage stamp front “garden”. An industrial town – but less than a 15 minute brisk walk from grim streets to rural countryside and only a few minutes more to my grandfather’s small farm near Weddington village where “harvest” meant hard work and “thanksgiving” was sincere when it was over.
Less than a block from where I was born is The Abbey Church of St. Mary the Virgin, a place of worship since the mid-12th century. History books tell us The Priory of Nuneaton was a ”daughter house of the great Abbey of Fontevraud, near Samur in Western France” built between 1155-59 and thrived until Henry VIII dissolved all such establishments then carved up their land as gifts for friends. Any buildings, including churches and accommodations, were left empty to become a source of home-building material for others and eventually fall derelict.
And derelict St. Mary’s remained for more than 300 years until in the late 1800’s a benefactor named Thomas Botterill primed and launched a fund raising drive to build on the ancient site a new Abbey Church. They named the street on which I was born after him. I was born upstairs in Number 23. Alas, no name plate marks that historic occasion in my life and there is no record that my boy soprano voice once echoed with other choristers through the vaulted re-built ceilings of St. Mary’s.
But echo it did and never more so than during the full Harvest Moon Festival– each year. There was no set day, no holiday, (still isn’t in the UK) no huge turkey dinners, no funny hats, no commercial babble. Just a serious, thankful festival geared to a full moon to celebrate a harvest “safely gathered in”.
That used to be the first hymn we sang as the choir, led by angelic (looking) little boys filed from the vestry, bright faces, cassocks and surplices – all mother-laundered – immaculate. We turned right at the main aisle walking between sheaves of wheat and barley, baskets of apples, pears, potatoes, beets, cabbages, tomatoes, peas and beans and jars of honey and home-made jam, to take our assigned places. The congregation responded full voice to our plea: “Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home…..”
From where I sat in the choir I could look down the length of the church. In the 1930’s every seat was occupied by a congregation sitting patiently through an always (for boy sopranos) long and obtuse sermon, then joining triumphantly in the hymns. The new church had been built to incorporate sections of the ancient walls and columns. An Art Journal of 1888 described a late autumn service: “….as early twilight closed in, lighted candles were fixed here and there on projecting stones and flung such fantastic shadows….that one might have thought the monks and nuns whose coffins had more than once been dislodged during construction were flitting hither and thither…”
Wax candles were long gone, replaced by small electric bulbs but the shadows still seemed to quiver when the congregation lifted robust voice triumph: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand…..”, The proclamation came from many who actually did work the land or, like me, had relatives who did. They understood a rich harvest depended on their work – with the sunshine and rain, vital to success.
At harvest they were truly thankful.
It’s 80-years now since I fully shared in a true festival a but I can still recite (and sing but not so well) the words and need for thanksgiving. I can still remember and believe in the main lesson – that we reap what we sow. I am made aware of my shortcomings, reminded that in the year past I have again harvested far more compassion and love from friends and sometimes strangers, than I have ever “planted”.
How was your year?