Mell Feast to Michaelmas

Maggie Black continues her seasonal history of food and popular culture with a look at this period of autumnal celebration at Harvest End.

The short spell between Harvest End and Michaelmas (September 29th) celebrates no great rituals of church or state, largely because it marked the time of greatest celebration and change in the countryman's year. Until the introduction of mechanical reaping, it ivas harder to draw men from the fields, either to fight or pray, during the harvest and just afterwards than at any other time.

The intensive work of bringing home the grain always had, as its climax, a carousing generous Harvest Supper or Mell Feast on each individual farm, throughout rural England. After it came the time for farmer and workman alike to take stock; to plan for ploughing and breeding; to fire and hire or to change employers. Depending on the quality of the harvest, these activities, too, culminated in local feasts and revels at the great Michaelmas stock and hiring fairs usually held at the beginning of October up and down the country.

AII these festivities were pagan. The Church had already had its due at Lammastide when by ancient 'Saxon custom, the first new corn or the bread made from it was brought to church to be blessed and offered up. Lammas means 'loaf-mass', the religious feast for which sacramental bread could first be baked from the new year's corn, and our modern church Harvest Festival or Blessing of First Fruits is an 1843 revival of this, not to be confused with Harvest Home or Mell Feast celebration.

The rural ceremonies of the Harvest End, celebrating the cutting of the Last Sheaf took place in the field. Only the figure called variously the Corn Doll or Kern Baby' which was made from the last sheaf had anything directly to do with the Harvest Home feast food. It was carried home with the last load on a garlanded haywain drawn by flower-decked horses, to preside over the Harvest or Mell Supper in the farm kitchen or great barn.

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