The tradition of Donegal fiddle is populated with giants, those who kept the tradition alive at any given time over the past century or so, and today it could be argued that the most recent patriarchs of Donegal fiddle are the Campbell brothers, Jimmy and Vincent. They related to Caoimhin Mac Aoidh in his history of the tradition, “Between the Jigs and Reels,” that each year during the harvest, the travelers would converge and set up camp near Glenties. One of the gypsies, a tall, exceptional burly fellow known only as Gypsy Mor, was an accomplished fiddler, who believed firmly in the power of the harvest moon. In fact, it was only on the appearance of the harvest moon that Gypsy Mor would consent to shave. His favorite tune, thought composed in the 1840s by a man named Mac Fhionnlaioch, Gealach na gCoinnleach is now known throughout the world, appropriately enough as Harvest Moon.
I knew the above story, having not only met, but inebriated myself in the company of not only Caoimhin Mac Aoidh, but the Campbell brothers as well, on the very night of the harvest moon, some years ago. I still remember a rather intense conversation held on the stairs of the Highlands Hotel in Glenties with Caoimhin and Jimmy, held entirely in Gaelic, of which I know none, but seemed to be understanding quite clearly. Such is the magic of the harvest moon, the Irish, and large quantities of Guinness and Jameson’s Irish whiskey.
Now, twenty two year later, I realized a startling fact. Aside from the story of Gypsy Mor, I didn’t know shit about the harvest moon. But from the name, I assumed it had to be something special. Something magical, or perhaps even, something dark with echoes of paganism or witchcraft.
So I decided to find out the source of the magic of the harvest moon. There are a couple of popular songs, the most recent a sweet love song by Neil Young simply titled Harvest Moon. Then there’s Leon Redbone crooning Shine on Harvest Moon.
Then there’s the old folk song, revitalized by Traffic in the 1970s, John Barleycorn Must Die. The lyrics speak of a figure called John Barleycorn, who is ritually sacrificed. But all we can say for sure about the practice is that it was the last sheath of barley to be cut in the field. Sir James Frazer certainly believed that in the dark past, a human took the place of that last sheath.
And while true, the summer harvest of Barley might stretch to the end of September, that didn’t guarantee that the harvest would coincide with the harvest moon.
The harvest moon is the first full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. For a brief period of time, the full moon rises low in the sky just about sunset, and due to its presence low on the horizon, it appears unusually large, often with a tinge of red, due to particles visible in the atmosphere. What this means is it stays somewhat light, somewhat longer into the evening, which allows more time in the fields, bringing in the harvest.
What I didn’t find was a history of ancient myths and celebrations, honoring the harvest. In reality, the harvest moon is celebrated in the rural idyl by working until late at night, taking advantage of the light to get in the last of the yield, before the weather turns cold, or rainy and the crops rotted in the fields.
It’s the last big burst of summer activity, and it’s one of the few named celestial events in ancient or pagan calendars which is marked by work, rather than celebration.
In Ireland, Great Britain and much of the United States, this is the time of year when the last of the crops are being brought in. I frequently read that the roots of Harvest Moon celebrations go back to pagan times. But really the only potentially pagan practices I come across is that of the corn dolly.
A corn dolly is a doll made from the leaves of what the British referred to as corn, but in reality was any kind of grain, such as wheat or barleycorn. Formalized, the doll is made from the last of the leaves of the year’s harvest. But it’s my guess, the practice actually started with little children, or adults making the dolls for their children to keep them occupied while they worked.
The practice today is mainly a formality, done because it’s supposed to be what we’ve always done at this time. Or made because we’ve seen one in a horror film at some point and it looked easy enough, and creepy enough. Even children have their screens today, so a doll made of leaves doesn’t have the same appeal it used to.
Sir James Frazer is the author who is usually quoted as placing it in the pagan era. But Frazer’s work always has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Frazer write that “In the neighbourhood of Danzig the person who cuts the last ears of corn makes them into a doll, which is called the Corn-mother or the Old Woman and is brought home on the last waggon. In some parts of Holstein the last sheaf is dressed in women’s clothes and called the Corn-mother. It is carried home on the last waggon, and then thoroughly drenched with water. The drenching with water is doubtless a rain-charm. In the district of Bruck in Styria the last sheaf, called the Corn-mother, is made up into the shape of a woman by the oldest married woman in the village, of an age from 50 to 55 years. The finest ears are plucked out of it and made into a wreath, which, twined with flowers, is carried on her head by the prettiest girl of the village to the farmer or squire, while the Corn-mother is laid down in the barn to keep off the mice. In other villages of the same district the Corn-mother, at the close of harvest, is carried by two lads at the top of a pole. They march behind the girl who wears the wreath to the squire’s house, and while he receives the wreath and hangs it up in the hall, the Corn-mother is placed on the top of a pile of wood, where she is the centre of the harvest supper and dance.”
The festival Frazer describes was held in Britain on the Sunday following the Harvest Moon, and simply called the Harvest Festival. Bringing in the harvest meant all hands on deck. You wanted the crops to stay in the ground as long as possible, for the biggest yield. So once you started picking, you had to move quickly so they wouldn’t over ripen. That meant you needed a large workforce.
Quite often that meant migrant labor. Also, it served as a kind of homecoming. Your children who had left might come back to help out and pickup a bit of pay. So we have harvest home, a time of communal living, and afterwards, communal celebration.
Today we get hung up over dates, and being a full moon, Harvest Moon is easy to identify. But let’s be realistic. If the harvest wasn’t in by the Sunday after the full moon, they didn’t drop what they were doing to celebrate. They celebrated when nature allowed.
Because in a lot of places, and dependent on the crops, the big harvest might fall at several different times. In Ireland, you’ve got Lugnasa which celebrated the harvest on or around August 1st, the Equinox a few weeks later, and Samhain or All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. All of these at different times and in different places were harvest celebrations.
Harvest Moon was a specific night, and its only real purpose – and it applied to the days before and after as well – was more light so you could do more work.
We don’t need the extra light any longer. We have streetlights. Most of us aren’t working the fields, and those that are, typically have plenty of lights beaming from modern harvesting equipment.
Maybe there are some ancient mysteries tied into the harvest moon, which I didn’t find or have been lost to history. Celebrating the harvest moon certainly feels right.
If there is any magical symbolism in the harvest moon, it’s that of the hearth. It’s the time of year when you’re gathering what will keep you alive, cooked over the family hearth, till the next crops come in.
We forget how easy we have it now … easy enough to become obsessed with the minutia. For out ancestors, the daily worry was simply feeding your family. Running down to the Piggly Wiggly or the Cosco or the Tesco wasn’t an option when you ran out of groceries when there was still snow on the ground.
Harvest time was a time of excitement and hope. As long as the harvest was a good one. If not, well that meant it was a winter of sacrifice. Just not necessarily in the gruesome sense of the word.
Between the harvest moon and the next year’s planting season, there were countless ways to die. A vibrant and healthy hearth is what kept you alive, and was the place you returned to after a long day’s work, stretching into the night, on the harvest moon.
That’s real magic.