How Was Your Year?

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?

3 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Site Title and commented:
    Things to be thankful for this year as a Vancouver Islander
    Location, location, location. Great country, Great province, great Island. Family and good friends. We had a peaceful election in this province and transfer of power without bloodshed. I’m a senior citizen (as are you) and the bills are getting paid. We lost a great Canadian and friend to many of us this year….I miss her but am thankful she is at peace…but I am thankful that I was privileged to know her as I did and share in her visions. They were her visions…not mine…but I enjoyed being there to support them. I’m thankful for that.

  2. The rituals of the English never fail to impress me, perhaps because they migrated to Canada and I grew up with their transplants. Multiculturalism be damned. My grandparents came from Russia but I grew up in an English colony as an English boy and became a Canadian.

    As for my year: 1. I stayed alive, 2. I was in fine health, 3. the last item includes a functioning brain, although I realize I would be incapable of knowing if it failed, 4. I paid my bills, 5. my food and drink were plentiful, 6. my wife and I were happy, particularly with each other, 7. I read many good books.

    I’m glad you asked.

  3. Hi Jim: Your latest column brought back eighty-year-old memories of my favourite church festival, when my brother and I were evacuated to a little village in south Durham from industrial Tyneside for four long years. We were billeted with an aunt who took over as verger of the magnificent 12th century church, when her son was called up into the army. Aunt Agnes was the only woman verger in England at the time and was busy in her role all year round, but particularly so at Easter and at Harvest Festival….certainly more than at Christmas. At the ages of eight and six we were enrolled in the sizable choir….. Alan on one side of the chancel and me on the other. I still remember and love the litany, the responses, the occasional psalm and most of the grand old hymns. We presented a different anthem at Evensong twice each month, so choir practice in the spooky old rectory was mandatory for us, two evenings and sometimes more, every week. And if the service was way too long for our tiny bladders, (as it always was on Good Fridays), we’d pass the milk bottle(s) along the front rows But in those days, we were always called TREBLES on our sheet music and by our fusty old choir master, from his organ loft above our heads….never boy sopranos! My Aunt’s pew was right behind me, where she sang a lusty contralto, with the real sopranos alongside. The men of course were in the rear rows, either side, and that’s where I ended up, back in my home town, after my my voice broke. I have such good memories of those bygone times, and today have much to be thankful for.
    Cheers. Bill Greenwell..

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