Some form of public thanksgiving, secular or religious, for the successful bringing-in of the harvest can be traced back to pagan times in Britain. However, harvest festival services, in the sense with which most of us will be familiar from church or school, really caught on in the mid-nineteenth century.
Now the harvest tradition is probably slowly dying out. That, at least, is the conclusion being drawn by some commentators from a recent YouGov poll conducted online among 2,200 adults on behalf of the campaign group Eat Seasonably, which is funded by Defra, and aims to promote Britain’s seasonal produce of fruit and vegetables. It is hoping to reignite the fashion for harvest festivals.
Four-fifths of those interviewed by YouGov said that they no longer celebrated harvest festivals. Moreover, of the one-fifth doing so, less than one-third (29%) took solely fresh fruit or vegetables to church or school. One-half brought in only tinned or dried food, with 54% listing tinned baked beans as a staple offering.
A national survey early in 2009, commissioned to mark the launch of the TV channel Blighty, found similar results, with less than one-quarter of adults reporting that they attended harvest festivals.
In polls conducted for the Church of England attendance at harvest festival services during the past year was claimed by 20% of Britons in 2003, 24% in 2005 and 20% in 2007. As with all recalled religious practice, it is likely that these figures are somewhat inflated.