Harvest Festival/Crying the Neck
The Harvest Festival tradition pre-dates Christianity and dates back to the pagan times and the name derives from the Old English word Haerfest meaning ‘Autumn’.
It’s Harvest Festival time in Britain, or it soon will be. Traditionally the celebration of all things Harvest – singing, praying, food, fruit, and crying (more on that later) – has been held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon, i.e. the full moon occurring closest to the Autumn Equinox, (September 22nd or 23rd.) But long ago, in pagan times, it was celebrated at the beginning of the Harvest on August 1. Back then, it was called Lammas.
Yes, that Lammas. The one Shakespeare referred to in Romeo & Juliet when The Nurse character is trying to pin-point Juliet’s age. “Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.”
Lammas means “loaf mass”. It referred to the bread loaves that were made from the new wheat crop and given to local churches to be used as the Communion bread during a special mass thanking God for the harvest. The ancient custom came to an end after Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church. Instead, a celebration took place at the end of harvest, with a big supper taking place on Michaelmas Day, September 29th. It was presided over by the strongest and most respected man in the village. The Lord of the Harvest, as he was known, was responsible for negotiating the harvest wages and organizing the fieldworkers.
Crying the Neck
But what about the “crying” you might be wondering. The proper term is actually “Crying the Neck”. A popular harvest festival tradition carried out long ago in the counties of Devon and Cornwall. It dates back to the days when reaping had to be done either with a hook or scythe, which meant the harvest lasted for weeks on end. But when the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, a reaper would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out "I 'ave 'un! I 'ave 'un! I 'ave 'un!" The rest of the reapers would then shout, "What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee?" and the reply would be "A neck! A neck! A neck!" Everyone would then join in shouting: "Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. [whatever the name of the particular farmer was]".
If you’re a long-time watcher of the Poldark television series you might recall seeing Francis Poldark performing the tradition in episode three of season two at Trenwith, his estate.
With the advent of the combine harvester and other machinery, the tradition eventually died out, but it was revived in the early 20th century by the Old Cornwall Society.