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Gathering Day (or Calan Awst) is a Welsh holiday associated with the harvest, involving gathering on hilltops or beside lakes at the beginning of August (Awst). Unlike with the Gaelic holiday of Lughnasa, there has not been a specific 'beginning of the harvest' festival in Wales for several hundred years.

Customs

  • Vital to the reaping of the harvest was the practice of mutual aid between farmers and neighbours in the community. The fedel wenith or reaping party drew on the pattern of Cymhortha (from cymhorthu - to help), a characteristic of Welsh medieval society. Small-holders would help each other and also the large farms in exchange for various things they had in their gift, like the loan of transport or a few rows of potatoes. In this way a system of goodwill and co-operation was built up within the community.
  • The end of harvest feast was also a vital part of the corn or grain harvest. The feast was known by various names in different parts of Wales - ffest y pen (the end of harvest feast), cwrw cyfeddach (carousal beer) and boddi’r cynhaeaf (drowning of the harvest), being three of them. The end of harvest feast was both a celebration and a reward for those who had worked so hard to gather it in. After the meal, there was usually dancing to the music of the fiddle, with a plentiful supply of beer and tobacco.
  • Some of the games and rituals enacted during the harvest may hark back to pre-Christian times and have sexual or fertility overtones. Rhibo, a game recorded from Carmarthenshire, consisted of six men standing in two rows of three facing each other and holding the hands of the person opposite. A man and woman were laid upon the arms of these six men and thrown up into the air several times. During the hay harvest too, there were games with sexual overtones. Anyone venturing into the field would be grabbed by workers of the opposite sex, bound with hay, and not released until some sort of favour was granted. For women, this was known as, ‘giving them a green gown’ and for men as ‘stretching their backs’. Another name for it in Carmarthshire was awr ar y gwair, an hour in the hay.
  • Another ritual has its counterpart in Ireland and many parts of Europe and may represent the remains of an ancient fertility rite. The custom was known as the caseg fedi or harvest mare. When all the corn had been reaped except for the very last sheaf, it would be divided into three and plaited. The reapers would then take it in turns to throw their reaping hooks at it from a set distance and the one who succeeded in cutting it down would recite a verse. It was seen as an honour in Wales to be the one to bring down the caseg fedi, and the man who did so was often rewarded. However, his task did not end with the cutting down of the sheaf; he was also expected to carry it into the house without getting it wet, past a team of women who would do all they could to throw water upon it. Often the reaper would hide the ‘mare’ under his clothes in order to get into the house past the women, and this could involve the men being disrobed as they tried to enter. If the man was successful, he would receive all the beer he could drink, or a shilling. If he did not succeed he did not receive his reward and was relegated to the foot of the table rather than the head of it. The sheaf was often hung in the house to show that all the corn had been gathered in. It could also, in one part of Wales, be put on the cross-beam of the barn or in the fork of a tree. Sometimes, however, it was smuggled to a neighbouring farm which had not so far finished harvesting and thrown in front of the head-servant as he reaped. Often it was the fastest runner who was given this task since he would be chased and if caught was often bound hand and foot with straw and thrown in the river. Alternatively, the reaper was to get the ‘mare’ to the farmhouse without being found out. If he were successful in delivering it without it getting wet, he could demand a reward of a shilling. But if he were caught before achieving this, he would be given a forfeit. The ‘mare’ may have represented the fertility of the harvest condensed into the final sheaf. In one part of Wales, it was recorded that seed from it was mixed with the seed at planting time ‘in order to teach it to grow’. In Ireland the last sheaf was associated with the hare, an animal who was often found sheltering in it. The story of the hag who turned herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the cow was a common Irish tale, and sometimes the sheaf was known as the hag or cailleach. It is possible that this association of the hag, as a creature known to steal food, with the cutting down of the last sheaf, represents the triumph of the human forces of agriculture against the chaotic or malevolent forces of nature in the shape of the hag. The practice in Wales of getting the sheaf into the house without it being wet by the women may also represent the saving of the harvest from chaotic nature in the shape of rain and storms, always a concern at harvest time, even today.

References

  • Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer, Llandysul, 1987
  • Trefor M. Owen, The Customs and Traditions of Wales, University of Wales Press and the Western Mail, Cardiff, 1998
  • Marie Trevelyan, Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, EP Publishing, Wakefield, 1973.
  • http://www.applewarrior.com/celticwell/ejournal/lughnasa/wales.htm, electronic version, by Hilaire Wood.
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