UNLOCKING THE PAST | Our harvest festivals: the long history

In this week's Unlocking the Past column, Cessnock City librarian Kimberly O'Sullivan writes about the Harvest Festival 

The United Nations has designated 2021 the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, raising awareness of the nutritional value and health benefits of consumption of fresh produce.

It also seeks to strengthen the role of small landholders and family farmers in sustainable production practices.

There is a direct local connection back over a century to our Harvest Festivals, much-loved annual celebrations in our local Christian churches.

They celebrated the importance of locally grown fresh fruits, vegetables and grains from small family farms.

No matter the denomination, Catholic, Protestant or Salvation Army, beautiful displays of locally grown food were on show in our regular Harvest Festivals.

According to Christian belief, God alone controls the weather and so enables the riches of the Earth to grow, therefore a glorious display of produce in a church setting is a visible way to thank God for a bountiful harvest.

The origin of Harvest Festivals go back much earlier than Christianity; they are central to pagan commemorations of the changing seasons.

A common belief was that a spirit resided in the last sheaf of grain picked, sometimes called a 'corn mother', when this was cut it signaled that the hard work of harvesting was over.

Community festivities and feasting could then take place.

As early as 1913 the Kurri Kurri Congregational Church was putting on a spectacular Harvest Festival with a specially organized concert and 'humorous character sketches' performed.

The gala began on the Sunday when large crowds admired the beautiful display of 'products of the soil' arranged by the women of the church (men were allowed to assist them).

Sermons were given on agricultural themes and the Festival continued until the following Tuesday, finishing with the selling of the produce.

Over at the Kurri Kurri Church of England the church was described as 'tastefully decorated with a profusion of fruit, vegetables, grain and flowers'.

A concert was held and the Rector preached to a capacity crowd, using the agricultural display as a metaphor for the 'great harvest of souls' which was coming on Judgement Day.

Such exuberant celebrations were not unusual.

In 1921 the Harvest Festival at the Cessnock Methodist Church started on Sunday morning and continued until Monday night.

CELEBRATE: No matter the denomination, Catholic, Protestant or Salvation Army, beautiful displays of locally grown food were on show at the regular Harvest Festivals.

CELEBRATE: No matter the denomination, Catholic, Protestant or Salvation Army, beautiful displays of locally grown food were on show at the regular Harvest Festivals.

At St. John's Church of England, Cessnock there were not enough seats for all the people who turned up on Harvest Sunday.

The Rector told of the feast of harvest.

He concluded with 'for the heart grows rich in giving, all its wealth is living grain, seeds which mildew in the gainer, scattered, fell with gold the plain'.

The following day super auctioneer Sam Horne organised the sale of the harvest goods with all funds raised going directly to the church.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Email kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

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