Here in Canada, we are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving next Monday, October 9. It might seem a bit odd to my American friends, who celebrate at the end of November, but with a cooler climate, most of the local crops are in, and that means it’s party time.
I’m a historian, and this naturally has me thinking about the history of harvest festivals. And so, down the rabbit hole I went.
Harvest festivals are almost universal, part of most cultures around the world, and echoing through the centuries. The English word ‘harvest’ comes from the Old English hærf-est, which means autumn, and it became associated with the time of reaping, gathering, and storing the produce of the land. Historically, there are two harvest festivals mentioned in the Bible. The first, for the spring harvest or first fruits, is Shavuot / Festival of Weeks / Pentecost, observed at the start of summer. The second is Sukkot / Festival of Booths, observed in the autumn, for the later harvest. We are in the middle of Sukkot now.
In the rest of the world of Classical Antiquity, the Ancient Egyptians venerated Min, god of vegetation and fertility, in their harvested fields. The Ancient Greeks paid tribute to Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and as an echo, the Romans had their festivals for Ceres. Further east, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節), is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (corresponding to mid-September to early October, and almost exactly the same time as Sukkot).[i] The present-day focus of this festival is the moon, but the harvest plays a large part in its observance as well. Historically, there have been harvest festivals celebrated in China since the Shang dynasty (c.1600-1046 BCE).
It should come as no surprise, then, that Britain has also had its share of harvest celebrations, dating back to neolithic times, although traditionally, there was no one day set aside to celebrate the harvest. Different crops were ripe and ready for harvest at different times, and such matters as local climate and the weather could have a huge impact on when the fields were ready.
For example, in 1863 a farmer in Hampshire wrote, “Began harvest on the 2nd August and up to the 25th the weather was delightful, which enabled us to get a splendid wheat crop saved in the best of order and a great portion of barley and oats.”[ii]
However, in 1879, the weather was disastrously wet, and some crops were still in the fields in November. There must have been little celebrating that year.
Consequently, for much of English history, harvest celebrations were very local and specific to each year’s requirements. Still, local traditions thrived through the ages, and in 1843, Reverent Robert Hawker from Cornwall proposed a harvest festival within the Church, complete with hymns of praise to give thanks for the bounty of the land, to be celebrated on Michaelmas, September 29.
In North America, as I mentioned above, we have national Thanksgiving celebrations. The dates of these have also varied over time, but now Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday of October, while American Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November.
In Canada today, Thanksgiving is associated with all the symbols of the harvest, like fall fairs, apple picking, pumpkins, and family gatherings. The leaves are turning at this time of year, and the landscape is transformed into a kaleidoscope of reds and golds and yellows. Many people, if lucky enough to do so, head off to cottages and the countryside, and when the weather cooperates with sunshine instead of rain, it can be a glorious time of year.
So, after all this, what does all this have to do with Jane Austen? Well, nothing and everything. Austen herself only mentions the harvest in passing in Mansfield Park, but I’ve given Canadian Thanksgiving quite a large role in two of the three books in my upcoming contemporary series of Austen-inspired retellings, soon to be released by Romance Café Publishing.
This first of these, All the Wrong Notes, is inspired by Pride and Prejudice, with a planed publication date of November 16.
In this excerpt, Elise (my modern Lizzy) has reluctantly joined her friend Janet (Jane) and Carlos (Charles Bingley) at Will’s cottage over Thanksgiving weekend. She can’t stand Will, especially after what she’s been told by someone who knew him before, but the allure of the cottage has made up for her dislike. But… maybe he’s not that awful. She wakes up early the day after they arrive, and makes her way up to the kitchen to hunt for some coffee.
Excerpt from All the Wrong Notes, a modern musical novel based on P&P.
Will was in the kitchen, elbows on the marble counter, one long leg dangling off the stool he half perched upon. He was reading something Elise couldn’t see, but he glanced up the moment she entered and gave her a heart-stopping grin.
“I hope you slept well.” His voice was deep and still a bit thick from sleep, and it sent tingles up her spine. Good tingles, and entirely unwelcome.
Down, she warned them. You don’t like him, remember? He probably kicks puppies for fun. But she would be polite.
“Thanks, the bed was very comfortable. I got a good look at the lake through the patio doors. It was too dark to really see last night, but it’s beautiful. This house is in a lovely spot. It feels more like a home than a cottage.”
“We’re lucky to have it. My parents basically live here when they aren’t somewhere tropical, and I come up as much as I can, when I’m not needed in the city for some reason or another. I’m happier here, where it’s quiet and where I’m not expected to perform for others. I can be myself here.”
This resonated with what Carlos had said, and Elise had to consider it. Will did seem to be a very different person in this peaceful house on a lake than he was amid the bustle of Canada’s largest city.
“I’ve got an office just on the other side of the deck, and satellite internet, so I can work here for weeks at a time, if I want to. As I said, I’m very lucky.”
“You spent a lot of the summer in the city,” Elise countered. “Surely, that would have been the best time to be away from the heat and the crowds.”
He blinked, long lashes fluttering over those mesmerising eyes. “Yes. My parents were here. They don’t need me around. And I… I thought I’d spend some time helping Carlos get settled. New city, new job, all that. He didn’t really need my help, though. He’s got all the social skills I wish I had. But I was pleased to be there for him, regardless.” He caught her in his gaze. “It definitely had its advantages.”
Will flushed, unaccountably, and stood up, clearing away whatever he had been reading. He moved around the counter to where a coffee maker held a glorious pot of rich dark liquid. He raised a mug, to which she nodded, and he poured the coffee.
“Milk and sugar are there. What do you like for breakfast? I’m afraid I’ve got to spend a lot of today working. There’s an important project going on, and we need all the paperwork ready by first light on Monday, London time. I hope you don’t mind.”
He handed her the mug and their fingers brushed. The warmth that flooded up Elise’s arm had nothing to do with the hot coffee in the cup she held. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Idiot! She chided herself. You’re just gobsmacked because he’s being nice.
“Thanks,” she managed at last. “We’ll keep ourselves entertained. Between the trails and the canoe, and the pile of books on my reader, I’ll be very happy.” Elise carried her mug to the table, helped herself to a pastry and put some bread into the toaster. “Are we far from the town?”
Will walked over, phone in hand. He sat next to her and tapped at the screen until a map appeared. He was very close, and Elise had to remind herself again that she didn’t like him. Did he always smell this good? No, it must just be the coffee and pastry and her not-quite-awake brain.
“We’re here,” he leaned towards her so she could see, “and the town is there.” He poked at the screen. “It’s a short drive on the country road, but if you want to walk or bike, this path along the lake will get you there pretty quickly.”
He was very close now, his arm all but brushing against Elise’s, and she could hardly think. Her eyes were fixed on his large hands with their long fingers, a sprinkling of hair just below the knuckles, swirling elegantly across the surface of the device. She had to fight the impulse to reach out and touch them, feel the skin and the play of muscles and sinews beneath. Never had she found hands so entrancing.
Look out for more about All the Wrong Notes closer to publication time!