Bewnans Kernow, Cornish Culture Association, Cornwall, Cornwall Today, Crying The Neck, Gulldize, Gunwen, Harvest, Harvest celebrations, Heritage, Old Cornwall Society, Penzance, Revived tradition, September
September can be the best month of all in Cornwall. The height of the tourist season has passed, the weather is usually glorious, the water is warm and the countryside has reached its peak. But for me, there’s always a faint sense of melancholy that begins to creep in as the days get shorter and the evenings get cooler. Maybe it’s my Australian upbringing that begins to dread the damp, dark coming days of winter, but fortunately my Cornish blood usually triumphs, especially when there are so many wonderful events coming up in the heritage calendar.
In August, we celebrated Lammas, the first harvest, and in September we find ourselves in this midst of, what would have been for or our ancestors one of the busiest of seasons – harvest proper.
Modern Harvest celebrations began in 1843 when the eclectic Reverend Robert Hawker of Morwenstow in Cornwall invited members of his congregation to a special thanksgiving service. This was then popularized by Victorian harvest hymns, and the idea of decorating churches with homegrown produce began to catch on. These days, most churches and chapels will have a Harvest service during the month of September, the main theme of which will be giving thanks for the bounty of the land, and for farmers too – still very relevant given much of Cornwall’s rural landscape. Parishioners bring homegrown produce and shop-bought supplies, they are displayed in a central place near the Church or Chapel’s altar, prayers of thanksgiving are said and harvest hymns are sung, and often followed by a social event where parishioners can celebrate with good food and good company.
This feasting tradition goes back to much earlier times, where celebrations would centre around the Autumn Equinox, the time of year where day and night are in balance. In fact, Church harvest services are still often held on the Sunday near or on the Harvest Moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the Equinox, which this year falls on the 23 September.
And in the 1920s, the Old Cornwall Society revived a tradition called “Crying the Neck”. It was based on a practice that took place across most large farms in Cornwall that signified the end of the corn or wheat harvest. Back then, corn and wheat were harvested in rows, and by scythes (yes I know, I’m thinking of Poldark too) or hooks. The very last bundle of corn to be cut was known as the “neck”, and it was traditional that as it was harvested a cry would go up signifying that the last of the harvest had been brought in. Much merriment, mischief and feasting would then ensue, and a corn “dolly” would be made from that those last stalks of corn. A much older belief was held that the spirit of the corn resided in those ears of grain, and that by weaving them into a dolly – the shape of which was particular to each region – and keeping it safe, luck would be brought to the next crop the following year. The dolly often had pride of place at the feasting table, and was then plowed back into the soil or kept in a special place.
Today, many Old Cornwall Societies hold “Crying the Neck” ceremonies, where a short service of thanksgiving is given in English and Cornish, and then the symbolic cutting of the last corn sheaf takes place. Once it’s cut, the cry of “I hav’n’, I hav’n’, I hav’n’” goes out, followed by the answer (from the audience) of “What hav’ee? What hav’ee? What hav’ee?” then answered with “A neck, a neck, a neck”.
In Gunwen near St Austell, the local community is doing its best not only to maintain its traditions, but also to educate its children about them. On the evening of 17 September the Gunwen Methodist Chapel will hold their Crying the Neck ceremony in conjunction with the Luxulyan Old Cornwall Society. After the ceremony, an evening of celebration will take place with Cornish music and dancing. In addition to this, the Chapel will invite children from four nearby schools to participate in their own ceremony, with the children acting out the Crying the Neck and learning how to make corn dollies. They will then be given daffodil bulbs to take home and plant so they can see the fruits of their labour flowering in the spring.
The Cornish Culture Association has revived the Penzance tradition of Gulldize, which this year will be held on 18 September. A large group of up to 150 people, including the 60 musicians of the Raffity Dumitz Band, will gather at the Yacht Inn in Penzance, from where they will process, dressed in traditional rural dress, with a “Neck” of corn, a pitchfork and a scythe, to the Admiral Benbow pub on Chapel Street, where an auction of home-grown produce will take place along with songs and dances traditionally associated with the time of year. As with other events, a dolly is made and last year’s can be found still hanging in the Admiral Benbow. I don’t know about you, but the opportunity of dancing the “Cock In Britches” whilst wearing dungarees and sipping on mulled cider is too good for me to pass up, so I’m looking forward to being there this year.
However you celebrate, remember to stop for a moment, take in the harvest moon, and give thanks for everything you’re grateful for. You never know, it might just help you prepare for the coming days of winter.
At a glance:
Gunwen Methodist Chapel (search “Friends of Gunwen” on Facebook)
Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
The Cornish Culture Association
© Sally Bell 2015
Originally published in Cornwall Today www.cornwalltoday.co.uk