Autumn Equinox is also called: Alban Elfed (Welsh), Mabon or Harvest.
Occurs between 21st – 23rd September
What is the Autumn Equinox?
The Autumn Equinox is the time of equal light and dark. From this day onward the Sun no longer outshines the darkness. The nights draw in & the air gets a distinct ‘nip’ to it – a sure sign of the winter months ahead.
The Autumn Equinox is also a gateway – it is the stepping stone between the light half of the year and the dark half.
This is also the time of the Harvest, a time of feasting, a time of celebration – the crops are all safely gathered in and it is a time of plenty.
The Moon at Autumn Equinox
The full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox is called the Harvest moon. At this time, in the northern hemisphere, the time between successive moon-rises, from one night to the next – is shorter than usual, this occurs for several nights before and after the full moon (1). So nature is particularly helpful as the early evening moon rises relatively soon after sun-set. This means that farmers can carry on working at a time when they have a very heavy work-load getting the harvesting finished. This is what makes a harvest moon so special.
Historical Context of Autumn Equinox and Harvest
By the time our ancestors reached the Iron-age (c.750 BCE – 43 CE) our culture was predominantly agricultural (2). Most people lived in small communities (maybe made up of extended families) and would have managed to produce enough food to sustain themselves and trade for what they could not produce. At harvest time it was absolutely essential that the food was correctly stored to preserve it. Granaries were built to store the grains from the crops. Meat, herbs and other plants would have been hung from the ceiling of the roundhouse where the constant heat and smoke from the fire would have preserved them perfectly – this would have been a busy time.Throughout the ages the design of the houses changed, the communities grew larger and a few more inventions entered life. Farming methods however remained a totally manual activity until the industrial revolution started in the late 1800’s.
The traditions, customs and practices of the harvest also carried on. A christianised slant was introduced to a lot of them and the church also tried to ban some, but they survived.
Autumn Equinox World-View
The core beliefs of our rural communities has remained little changed, probably since our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The belief that all living things have a spirit and that spirit must be ‘revered’. So there are correct procedures to follow, correct language to use, rituals that must be observed to prevent ill from falling upon you – to ensure that good fortune came your way and to protect you and your household over the coming dark winter months. It is no wonder that we have some wonderful (and sometimes weird) customs and practices that surround harvest time.
Autumn Equinox Folk-Lore Customs and Traditions
When crops of grains (Wheat, Barley, Oats) were harvested by hand (hand-held sickle or scythe), groups of labourers would work systematically around the field. Working from the outside edges, toward the centre, they cut the crop and tied it into sheaf’s (small bundles) which in turn would be stood in ‘stooks’ (bundles of sheaf’s stood together on end). It was believed that; as the crop was cut the ‘spirit of the crop’ moved into the remainder. By the time the middle of the field was reached the spirit of the whole crop was in the last remaining sheaf. It was vitally important that this remaining sheaf was cut with due care and process to preserve the spirit of the crop.
A ritual to ensure the preservation of the spirit of the crop; carried out in many parts of the country was; a ‘chosen’ person would be blindfolded, they would then ‘throw’ a sickle at the sheaf until it was successfully cut – this last sheaf would then be preserved and woven into a corn dolly. The corn dolly held the spirit of the whole crop and would be taken in-doors to protect the house (or barn) over winter. The following spring the corn dolly would then be ploughed back into the soil where the spirit would be able to teach next years crop how to grow.
Crying the Neck
In ‘THE STORY OF CORNWALL”, 1934, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin writes of the harvest season in old Cornwall:
“In those days the whole of the reaping had to be done either with the hook or scythe. The harvest, in consequence, often lasted for many weeks. When the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, one of the reapers would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out in a loud voice, “We have it! We have it! We have it!” The rest would then shout, “What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee? What ‘ave ‘ee?” and the reply would be, “A neck! A neck! A neck!” Everyone then joined in shouting, “Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. So-and-So” (calling the farmer by name.)”
“After this the neck itself was plaited and dressed with flowers, and carried into the farmhouse kitchen. Here it was kept in a place of honour until it made way for the new neck of the following year. This ceremony also probably originated in far-off times when the god of growth, or “spirit of the harvest,” was thought to dwell in the standing corn.
“On the evening of the neck-cutting the farmer often gave a supper to his workpeople, which put them in good heart for the rest of the harvest. During the succeeding weeks the corn was carried and built up into ricks adjoining the farmhouse. This was always an anxious time, and if the weather was uncertain everyone would be ready to lend a hand.”
“At last, when all the precious corn was saved, came the harvest supper, or “Guldize.” The first course generally consisted of potatoes and broiled pork, or else beef and mutton, served up in a huge crock capable of holding twelve or fourteen gallons. This was followed by plum or rice puddings, and apple dumplings, served with great bowls of cream. Bread and butter, cheese and heavy cakes were also provided to “fill up the gaps”, whilst the whole was washed down with spirits, cider, beer or (more recently) strong tea. The evening concluded with songs, dances, and games, which were kept up to a late hour.”
For more information about celebrating the festivals see the Sacred Celebrations page.