As the harvest season begins in earnest in Vermont, I am once again grateful to live someplace where I and my children can be in tune with the seasonal changes that lead to fall’s bounty. As a child growing up in New Jersey, the brightest objects in my night sky were the moon and the satellites that managed to penetrate the permanent soft-red glow of electric lights reflecting back from the low atmosphere. In Vermont, I have become much more aware of the cycles of the moon and the changing of daylight with the seasons. Because of this, I have been able to connect more fully not only with my own religious traditions, but with the traditions of farming cultures the world over.
In Judaism, the fall harvest festival of Sukkot is also referred to as the Feast of the Ingathering. Originating in a part of the world where there were three harvest feasts each year, Sukkot has many environmental traditions that no doubt pre-date the Biblical period and story of the Exodus that has come to overlay it. Judaism follows a lunar calendar, but the ancient Israelites are also credited with creating a seven day week by adding the Sabbath—a day of rest—to the Babylonian Base 6 mathematical and calendrical system that dominated the Middle East at that time. Hence, Sukkot begins on the full moon of the month of Tishri and lasts seven days (eight for Jews in the Diaspora). Because the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, the Jewish calendar added a “leap month” every four years to ensure that harvests and their celebrations occurred in the right season. As a result, Sukkot almost always begins on the first full moon after the autumnal equinox.
The Chinese calendar, which spread to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia over the millennia, also incorporates the autumn harvest into its religious pantheon of belief and festivals. The Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on the full moon of nearest the fall equinox. Although based on a lunar calendar, from ancient times China was an extremely well-organized and primarily agricultural society, so it was crucial for astronomers to ensure the alignment of harvest celebrations with the cycle of seasons as well as celestially-based religious holidays. Worship of the moon dates to 2000 B.C.E., when it was believed that the birthday of the Queen of the Moon celebrated her birthday on the full moon of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. Traditionally, people settled their debts along with harvesting fruits, vegetables, and grains. To this day, Chinese people exchange moon cakes—dense, highly caloric rice flour delicacies—to friends, family, and business partners. And, as with most Chinese holidays, offerings of fruit, incense and money are offered on each family’s ancestral shrine.
A debt to my Welsh great-grandparents must also be acknowledged, for the ancient Celts, who migrated in waves from their homeland in Central Europe to Gaul and the British Isles by 2000 B.C.E., also followed a primarily lunar calendar. Because they were farmers, they too correlated their calendar with solstices and equinoxes, as the massive henge monuments that dot the British Isles attest. For the Celts, the new year began with the second full moon following the fall equinox, on Samhein, the first day of the month of Samonios. Unlike other harvest festivals, Samhein truly marked the beginning of winter, and thus took on the features of a feast of thanksgiving. With the hard work of the harvest over and livestock brought in for the winter, the Celtic people were ready to express both their gratitude for the season’s bounty and their hopes for an easy winter. They sacrificed cattle, offered petitionary prayers, and—like the Chinese—laid out offerings of food and drink for the dead, whom they believed could pass through a boundary between the Otherworld and their own on this night. They also built huge bonfires on hilltops, perhaps in recognition of the lengthening darkness of winter nights that had begun with the autumn equinox and now were reinforced by the cold of the season. The full moon’s light shone down on it all.
The agricultural cultures of the Eastern Woodlands Native American Indian tribes also relied on the brightness of the Harvest Moon as a time to mark both harvest and celebration. Astronomically speaking, the Harvest Moon rises only thirty minutes later each successive day, compared with the average fifty minutes during the rest of the year. Thus, there is little period of darkness on the full moon nearest to the autumnal equinox, and some anthropologists believe farming cultures used this additional light to bring in the harvest in colder climates where survival through difficult winters depended upon gleaning as much as possible from the fields. Moreover, the reddish glow and perception of its larger sign makes the full moon exceptionally beautiful as it gradually rises above the horizon line. These Americans celebrated the Ripe Corn Harvest with feasts and dances of thanksgiving in New England that pre-date the “First Thanksgiving” of European colonists by several thousand years.
Living in the United States, we are all included in the celebration of Thanksgiving, our national outpouring of gratitude for family and food. Groups of early colonists, individual families and communities, and even states observed holidays of thanksgiving shortly after the harvest, but it wasn’t until 1863, in the depths of this nation’s greatest crisis, that President Lincoln dedicated the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday of Thanksgiving. For many of us, it is a wonderful blending of traditions that dates back centuries: embracing foods from the bounty of the North American continent, reciting blessings and prayers that date back thousands of years and have been passed down generation to generation, and preparing family recipes from many cultures for the Thanksgiving table: lasagna, tamales, dumplings. In Vermont, the produce of our gardens will long have been harvested, canned, frozen or preserved, the remnants of our gardens composted, and the ground hard and rimed with frost. From now until then, I look forward to enjoying this season of unprecedented bounty and celebration in honor of what the earth, the work of many hands, and the mysterious workings of life have created.