The Historian: Harvest Home special service celebrates the gathering of the harvest

Contrary to popular belief, not all Mennonites met in austere meeting houses. This photo taken by N.B. Grubb of the Harvest Home decoration at the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia about 1905.

“And thou shalt observe the feast of the first fruits of wheat harvest…”

Exodus 34:22.

It’s safe to say that in years gone by every Lutheran and Reformed church in Pennsylvania as well as most Mennonite meeting houses celebrated the gathering in of the harvest with a special “Harvest Home” service. To this day most of these congregations hold a Sunday service commemorating the harvest. This event in the liturgical year seems to be exclusively practiced by Germanic Protestants.

An August 10, 1901, note in the Town and Country newspaper reads: “Harvest Home services will be conducted in the New Hanover Lutheran Church tomorrow in the German Language by the Rev. J.J.Kline.” To this day the congregation decorates the sanctuary for this special Sunday service. Additionally, in keeping with their agrarian heritage, they also hold a special blessing of the fields in the spring.

The harvest festival’s origin is lost in the depths of time, but researchers find it to be a survivor of pagan rituals. Roman historians make note of harvest festivals. Throughout European history, the conclusion of the exhausting labor of grain harvest coupled with the safe storage of the season’s crop was cause for celebration and thanksgiving.

The term “Harvest Home” comes from the British Isles where ancient Celtic and Saxon rituals of harvest frolics, harvest dances, and harvest suppers celebrated the ending of the grain harvest. This was a merry time when, for example, the last grain sheaf became the Kern (corn) baby and was dressed as a maiden and paraded through the streets at the start of the frolic.

The oldest church liturgies (Lutheran and Reformed) from the German Reformation make note of special services for harvest thanksgiving. Apparently the custom was brought to Pennsylvania by the 18th century Germanic immigrants. The day was variously called in Dutch (German) Erntdankfest (harvest thanks fest) or just Erntfest and sometimes Erntfersammlung (harvest gathering). These names as well as the terms “Aernkarrich” (harvest festival) and “Aernbreddich” (harvest thanksgiving) were gradually replaced with the English term “Harvest Home.”

Originally, among the Lutheran, Reformed, and Mennonite immigrants, the day of harvest thanksgiving involved a special church service, usually held during the week (often a Thursday) at the close of the small grain harvest. Since the ripening order of grain was first rye in early July followed by wheat and then oats in early August, most Harvest Home services were held in August. However they could be anytime from early July to mid October depending on each congregation’s custom and wishes. Over time the harvest service migrated from a weekday to a regular Sunday service.

Throughout the twentieth century and before, the custom here was to decorate the front of the sanctuary with the bounty of field and garden as a kind of offering. Many congregations still follow this custom, but usually in a more symbolic way.

In the old days, the biggest pumpkins and squashes, symbolic sheaves of wheat and shocks of corn, home canning of every sort with baskets of fresh vegetables and fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches adding color were carefully arranged around the chancel. It is almost safe to say, too, that in every church the processional hymn was the 1858 classic:

“Come Ye thankful people come

Raise the song of harvest home

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin…”

Traditionally this bounty went to the minister as a supplement to his usually meager salary. One informant wryly noted that that practice died out when the minister’s wife objected to having this mountain of raw vegetables arriving at the parsonage. She would then have had to preserve it.

So the custom arose of donating the food to church orphanages and old age homes such as the Phoebe Home for the Aged in Allentown, the Lutheran home in Topton or the Frederick Mennonite Community. In the early 1970s it became illegal to serve home canned foods in such places and the fresh vegetables became rather more trouble than they were worth. New Hanover Lutheran and Pottstown’s Emmanuel Lutheran Church as well as many others still gather in commercial canned goods and non-perishables usually taking them to food banks such as the Pottstown Cluster Outreach.

Harvest Home service must not be confused with the national Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving Day was instituted by President Lincoln, and came too late in the season to be combined with Harvest Home. Indeed, the Protestant Germans at first ignored Thanksgiving, coming as it did “on the cold and shivering edge of winter” long after the harvest was over.

Before the National Thanksgiving Day was instituted by Lincoln, there was, however, a national prayer and thanksgiving day locally known and observed as “Betdaag”(prayer day). Betdaag was slowly subsumed into Thanksgiving Day; but Harvest Home always stood independent from these two.