Thursday, 29 October 2009

Autumn: Harvest Festival and Thanksgiving

Bringing in the sheaves
Living in a city you have a hugely distorted sense of the traditional significance of the seasons. The end of the summer and the beginning of autumn is when crops are harvested and all sorts of vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, leeks, turnips, marrows and pumpkins reach maturity. Since most types of food are available all year round (such as strawberries flown in at Christmas time) we city-dwellers have little appreciation of how the seasons shape life in the country.

The custom of the harvest festival still survives in churches (and some schools). Produce from the fields and from gardens is brought into the church and the congregation offer thanks for the natural bounty supplied by the Lord (or whoever you think supplies it – perhaps for most people in Britain it is now Tesco’s, the UK’s largest supermarket chain).

While many schools and schoolteachers are reluctant to promote religion when they lack religious convictions themselves, the harvest festival is still a feature of British school life (with or without religious overtones). It seems like a good idea to not take the food we eat for granted and to at least consider that while food may be abundant in the rich countries of the west and the northern hemisphere its scarcity is a fact of life in many other parts of the less developed (or poor) world.

I remember when I was at school that everyone would bring something from home – perhaps a tin of baked beans or a packet of biscuits and it would all be stacked on the stage for a full-school assembly (which, looking back now, must have made the headmaster and the senior teachers look slightly like delegates at a trade fair promoting a range of household brands). After the service the food would be donated to a local old people’s home or children’s home. I actually still think that’s a good thing to do – whether or not there’s an accompanying religious service.

In a similar vein, the American festival of Thanksgiving, held in November, marks the first harvest produced by the Pilgrim Fathers – the Puritan settlers who left Europe and landed in New England. Thanksgiving is only celebrated in the US (and Canada) and is a bit of a mystery to most Brits who only really know about it from films and TV programmes or the fact that Wall Street is closed for a public holiday. Thanksgiving dinner features a turkey (which is what the British have for Christmas dinner) with cranberry sauce (ditto) and pumpkin pie (which doesn’t really exist in the UK).

With a significant North American expatriate population in (west) London (due mainly, but not entirely to the phenomenal success of the romantic comedy “Notting Hill”*), some shops now cater for customers in search of typical Thanksgiving fare. A posh (high-class) butcher near Holland Park tube station (close to the London School of English, where I used to teach) has a sign in the window at this time of year advising its well-heeled stateside clientele that they can now order their Thanksgiving turkeys. I’m sure a similar offer must be made to the Americans and Canadians in Milan by at least one enterprising butcher, but I haven’t seen any firsthand evidence of this. (If you’re an American or Canadian in Milan, or a butcher, I’d love to hear.)

*Click here to see a picture of Notting Hill Underground station and other picture postcard views of London.

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