Come Ye Thankful People, Come
There will be many present who remember, like me, a different pattern of daily existence; perhaps a more ordered timetable in a way of their life. The household weekly sequence of events followed a continuity similar to that in the old folk song “Dashing along with the smoothing iron”.
If it is washing day it must be Monday. The boiler is lit, the water is heated, the tubs and scrubbing board pulled out, the dolly blue and the Reckett’s starch are to hand, the pressure is adjusted on the mangle rollers, and for dinner there will be cold meat from the remains of the Sunday joint, with boiled potatoes and beetroot, and a rice pudding to follow.
Tuesday and the ironing must be done, Wednesday for upstairs cleaning, Thursday for downstairs, fish for dinner on Friday, Saturday the dreary queuing for an eternity in the Co-op buying groceries, then next door to the butchers for meat. Church on Sunday, Sunday School in the afternoon; and so the weeks went by in a steady rhythm.
Dinner was a meal in the middle of the day then, (lunch was a mere mid-morning break) with bread and jam and home made cake at tea-time. Tinned salmon, or ham and tongue, jelly and blanc-mange with Sunday tea, and if there was tinned fruit you ate bread and butter with it, lest the sweetness was too rich for delicate stomachs.
And now for many of us the pattern changes. The television set, the home video, the washing machine, the refrigerator, the deep freeze, and the microwave oven have brought with them, and catered for, a different pattern of living. The main meal is now in the evening, with a sandwich in the middle of the day. Muesli has replaced porridge for breakfast, and I haven’t eaten bread and jam in years. My children and grandchildren have never heard of blanc-mange. Who can tell the time of day, let alone the day of the week by whether the washing machine is switched on or not? The mangle is in the museum, and starch is sprayed from an aerosol instead of being dissolved in water.
In a still more distant age, seed-time and harvest dominated the largely rural pattern of life. If the harvest was poor, the winter would indeed be hard. What was not stored in the barns, clamped in the fields, dried in the lofts or salted and preserved “…ere the winter storms begin”, would not be imported from the Common Market or the Commonwealth.
Now as we eat our kiwi fruit, buy our pre-prepared pizzas, purchase a Chinese take-away, or visit the local Indian Restaurant – delights of which our parents knew nothing – most of us are hardly aware of whether or not the harvest is good. Yet, with stomachs comfortably full, we still sing with vigour the lines of the hymn which go,
“We have enough, yet not too much to ask for more.”
Yes many things have changed in my short life span. As a nation, we are better fed, with a greater variety of food available than ever was in my youth. We can afford to talk today not only of eating, but of healthy eating. The growth industry is slimming diets and weight-watching; calorie counting and fat-free foods. We open our freezers indifferent to the calendar, eating raspberries at Christmas, turkey in the spring, and pork at any time heedless of whether there is an “r” in the month or not. Sales of cookery books are best sellers, only outclassed by the Bible, but referred to more frequently than the religious text.
For better or for worse, pate has replaced potted meat, tripe and onions given way to chile con carne, ravioli is preferred to beans on toast, no more jelly and custard but black forest gateau instead. The contents of the supermarket trolley will include a bottle of wine from Australia, California, Italy or France, as well as curry powder and soya sauce. Olive oil is now for cooking, not for mixing with raspberry vinegar to ease a child’s sore throat.
Both nationally and internationally much has changed. More food is produced in the world than ever before. “The desert shall blossom as the rose”, said the Old Testament prophet, and indeed this is so where irrigation has brought life to barren, arid areas; though sadly balanced by once fertile regions reduced to new, man-created wildernesses.
Nevertheless, so much food is produced that we talk of lakes of wine, mountains of beef or warehouses over-flowing with butter. Farmers are paid to stop growing food or to produce less. Fine crops are left to rot in the fields because there is already a glut of food. Other harvested crops are deliberately destroyed as barns are full to over-flowing.
And yet starvation and malnutrition is experienced by more than half the population of the world. The pot-bellied starving child, the human skeleton figures of hungry inhabitants from Africa or Asia haunt our television screens. Bursting barns and empty stores coexist as “haves” get more and “have-nots” less.
But some things haven’t changed very much. The agricultural worker the world over is, as ever was, among the poorest paid. Many workers in the Third World countries on whose harvests we rely for our comfort, live in abysmal poverty, as they pick the leaves which are dried for our tea-cups, harvest exotic fruit for our tables, or leave the land to grub in vast mines for the gold and diamonds they will never own.
I sometimes entertain a grand-child by reading rhymes from an old nursery rhyme book. One of them goes,
“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
The beggars are come to town
Some in rags, some in jags
And some in velvet gowns”
The beggars came from rural poverty in the countryside. Of course jags are not cars, it describes the drunk or drugged trying to alleviate their misery, and the velvet gowns had been discarded by the rich and privileged. These things have not changed. The harvests may be plentiful, indeed over-abundant, but the hungry beg all over the world, including in our own great cities. They still come to town. They beg by day, sleep on the pavement or in cardboard boxes at night. Hunger gnaws amid plenty; poverty grinds in the presence of affluence.
But we are here to rejoice in the harvest. It is right that we celebrate harvest on one day in the year, even though harvesting goes on somewhere in the world every day. One day a year is not too much to set aside, less we forget that, mind-boggling as our technology is, clever as our mechanical and agricultural skills undoubtedly are, the miracle of life itself determines whether or not crops germinate, or our cattle reproduce. Harvest may be facilitated, but life is not man-made.
We may irrigate, we may till; we may sow, we may propagate; but all may be in vain; for there will be no harvest without that powerful miracle within the tiny seed. Of “All God’s gifts around us”, it is the central one of life itself which humbles us. Our harvest festival is at its core, a thankfulness for life.
But harvest cannot be an occasion of uninhibited joy whilst one third of the world’s population consume two-thirds of the world’s harvests; whilst beggars come hungry to town as crops rot un-gathered in the fields, or deteriorate undistributed in the barns, or are burnt extravagantly to avoid depressing prices. Celebration is touched with guilt when children with swollen bellies can and do perish from starvation.
A couplet in one of the most loved of the harvest hymns goes,
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin
One day perhaps we shall sing with honesty a new couplet,
Nations humbly sharing bread
That all peoples may be fed
When that happens the thankful people who come will not be the minority who welcome the abundant harvest of which they will get the lion’s share, but all the people for whom God’s harvest is intended.
It is a truism to repeat that the christian faith rests upon two foundation stones, love of God and love of one’s neighbour. Within the former – the love of God – rests many emotions which are perhaps to the forefront in a harvest celebration.
There is awe, there is gratitude; there is wonder, there is thankfulness; there is the feeling of personal inadequacy, there is comfort in the presence of the provider.
It is right that all these things should be in our minds as we sing “Come ye thankful people, come”, and the rest of our rousing harvest hymns. Rejoicing and gratefulness ought and must be part of our harvest celebration.
But the other under-pinning support of the Christian faith – love of neighbour – must not be unheard in the tumult of our exultations. That now rightly discarded verse of “All things bright and beautiful”, spoke of
“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate”.
Today we rejoice in the riches God has provided. We dwell within the castle. That poor men, women and children throughout the world beg at our gates and have little in which to rejoice, as we enjoy the fruits in which the world abounds, must not be forgotten. Harvest is not merely a time to say thank-you, it is also a time to reflect on how little has changed since the barns of Egypt were full, and Joseph’s kindred starved in the adjacent land of Canaan. Plenty, cheek by jowl with famine.
But then Joseph sought to redress the balance by sharing the garnered produce. Joy of harvest enhanced by the satisfaction of sharing; sadly that is a goal which we are striving still to reach.
Mexborough 14 October 1990
Fulwood 29 September 1991
Mexborough 11 October 1992
Hucklow 18 September 1994