Summer Harvest Festivals

Sheaf of grainIn a couple of days I’ll be celebrating the first of two harvest festivals, Skördefest. The name actually means “harvest festival” in Swedish and kicks off Skördemånad, or Harvest Month, in the Old Swedish calendar. A more common name for the first harvest celebration among American Ásatrúar is Freyfaxi, a modern name given to a celebration attested to in the Icelandic sagas and named after a famous horse mentioned in the saga of Hrafnakel Frey’s Gothi. In Anglo-Saxon custom, the upcoming holiday, is called the Loaf Feast. The Anglo-Saxon name gives a pretty clear idea that it is a celebration of the early harvest cereal crops, namely wheat and barley, and provides fresh bread and beer for the first time in months.

For a lot of modern folk, this is one of those holidays that seems to be hard to connect with because our world today just has little context for it. It was only because of research on American crop growth that I even learned that cereal grains are an early harvest crop. After all, we all “know” that the harvest is a Fall thing and the the summer is for growing crops. This is true, for late harvest crops like apples, corn, soy beans, and so on. Early harvest crops, like wheat, barley, tomatoes, and peas. In fact, many early harvest crops, like tomatoes and peas, are best picked early so that more can grow in for a later harvest. For those who are interested in gardening and growing their own vegetables, early harvest crops yield all sorts of late summer goodies.

The early harvest festivals are a celebration of new crops but it is also a way of making ready for the late harvest crops that needed to be harvested faster due to impending bad weather. By the end of August, Scandinavia starts seeing snowfall in some areas and crops left in the field can be easily destroyed by early snows. Making sure that you’ve gathered all the food you can for the winter, and all the hay you will need to keep your livestock alive during the winter, was paramount to survival. Common to most early harvest festivals are offerings and sacrifices made to ensure a bountiful harvest so that the food stores would be full enough to get through the winter with as little trouble as possible.

The question for all of this today is different than it was for our ancestors. We aren’t subsistence farmers any more. We can go to the store at any time and restock our pantries with fresh foods grown around the world. Those of us who don’t live in areas that see snow don’t even have to worry about a freak blizzard trapping you inside the house and preventing you from getting to the store. So, why does this sort of thing matter to us now? Besides the economic impact of scarcity and the obvious answer of tradition, how do we make this sort of thing matter to us in our world of technological wonders, especially if we don’t have or own small garden to tend?

The truth is that most of us need to answer this question for ourselves. For me, much of my family still lives in a farming community so harvest times are meaningful to me because they mean economic survival for many members of my family. The communities they live in suffer greatly when the farmers have poor harvests. People lose jobs because small businesses can’t afford to keep them through the winter when no one has money to buy stuff. I also know a lot of people that supplement their own grocery bill by growing many of their own fruits and vegetables. Come next Spring, this is something my own wife wants to start doing. As a home brewer, I enjoy making the first Fall beers and I get excited when I start seeing Oktoberfest beers showing up in the stores. I also see it as a time to ask for blessings to keep my home operational and well funded through the winter, when it is harder to find a new job if something goes wrong.

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