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Thanksgiving

women harvesting tea in Sri Lanka

In autumn at the close of the growing season, people, like squirrels, ants, and bees, get busy gathering the great bounty of the land. We forage and harvest, hunt and herd; industriously amassing the abundance proffered by earth, water, and sky. After the toil, the patient tending of the soil, and the months of work and worry, we are ready and relieved to collect the crop and the kill.

Hi hianai hu!
Here on my field
Corn comes forth,
My child takes it and runs,
Happy.

Here on my field
Squash comes forth.
My wife takes it and runs,
Singing.

Papago Song of the Corn Dance

We then set about preparing it, preserving it, salting it, saving it, packing it away for future use, making feverish haste in our race against the coming cold. But first, we take the time to glory in its goodness. With grateful prayers of thanksgiving we acknowledge our precious fortune, and gorge ourselves and the god/desses, too, with fabulous feasts of plenty.

Harvest festivals are pandemic. They represent the successful completion of another fertile cycle, another round. In agricultural societies the annual cycles are counted from sowing to scything. The keepers and stalkers of stock and game follow the cycle from birth to slaughter. For those who fish to live, the season starts with the spawning and culminates in the running of the salmon, the cod, the squid, the whale.

Ultimately, all harvest festivities celebrate one more season of our tenuous survival. We have managed to live through another year. Another fertile period has passed in our favor. We have been lucky. One way or another, we will have the wherewithal to sustain ourselves through another winter, another dry spell, another monsoon.

Then comes autumn, rich with vintage,
Happily the world rejoices,
He who works will want for nothing
When the heavy winter falls.

Romanian Corn Husking Song

Harvest time is both an ending and a beginning, a natural new year, and it is celebrated as such in several cultures. The New Year of the Hausa of Ghana, celebrated at the yam harvest, is called "The Feast of the Full Stomach." The all-important Festival of the Yam marks the beginning of the Nigerian Yoruban calendar year, with fasting, sacrificial offerings, and finally, great feasting.

Crop Over, celebrated as a civic festival in Barbados since 1973, originated as the harvest festival of the slaves who cut the sugar cane crop. A grand procession of decorated carts pulled by fancied up horses hauls in the last loads of cane to the mill yards. The parade, lead by a woman in white, features a float with an effigy of "Mr. Harding," Mr. Hard Times, if you will. This ugly and unsympathetic figure, made from waste products from the sugar mills and dressed in black coattails and a top hat, represents the slave owners and task masters. At the culmination of the dancing, gaming, feasting and "stick-licking," (a fencing-like martial art practiced with sticks of sugar cane), the fellow is fed to the fire.

full, orange Harvest MoonThe full moon which occurs closest to the equinox in the fall, the huge, orange harvest moon, is the most spectacular of the year. Because it rises right on the horizon just as the sun sets, it assumes a larger, more radiant countenance. According to an ancient Chinese axiom, "When Mid Autumn comes, the moon is extraordinarily brilliant." The moon, almost always associated with the archetypal female principle, is undeniably brighter now, and more lush: Evocative. It is no wonder that its wondrous waxing - from new to full - should frame so many diverse festivals of food, fortune, fulfillment: festivities all honoring our Mother Who Feeds Us, She Who Attends To All Our Needs.

The Mid Autumn Feast is celebrated throughout the Orient on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Originating in China, it is known as Chung Ch'iu in Hong Kong, Tiong Chhiu Choeh in Taiwan, Chusok in Korea, and Trung Thu in Viet Nam. The festival enjoys a widespread general popularity today, although traditionally, this thanksgiving feast of the full harvest moon in honor of Chang O, the Moon Lady, was a women's occasion officiated by the esteemed eldest matriarch of each household, befitting the yin (female) quality of the moon. This especially lovely evening is spent outside in the luminous light of the huge lunar disk. Lanterns are lit in loving, imitative tribute, and people gather in groups to moon-gaze.

Glorious the moon...
Therefore our Thanks
Dark clouds
Come to rest our necks.

Bashô
Seventeenth Century Japanese

Altars are created by the women in the family with plump round fruits: apples, oranges, peaches. Pomegranates are also included as they are especially propitious: their many seeds imply an earthy as well as human fecundity. Wine, tea, and chrysanthemums are also offered. The altar centerpiece is a towering pyramid of thirteen moon cakes, once-a-year-only sweet treat balls of rice dough filled with sweet bean paste, lotus seeds, and duck eggs. This triangular configuration of cakes is symbolic of the fertile pubic triangle of woman. According to custom, one exchanges moon cakes with friends and colleagues as an act of good-will and offers them to T'u-ti Kung, God of the Soil.

The new harvest moon ushers in the Jewish High Holiday Season. The ritual cycle starts with Rosh Hashanah, the new moon in Libra, the first day of the first lunar month after the Autumn Equinox. basket of applesThe sounding of the shofar, or ram's horn, signals the birth of the spiritual New Year. It is customary at the Rosh (begins) Hashanah (the year) family dinner to share the succulent fruits of the fall harvest - apples, honey and wine - to ensure a sweet year to come. Fish, also sweetened, is served to symbolize fertility, as well as carrots which represent prosperity. Challah, the round ceremonial braided bread baked from freshly milled flour, stands for life without end.

Ten days later, Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, follows. On this most solemn day of the Hebrew calendar, people fast and pray that they might be forgiven — and forgiving — of all sins committed either by intent or by accident. In this way their psyche is cleared of all impediments and they are able to enter the new year in a state of at-one-ment with themselves, their intimates, the community at large, and the entire cosmos. The daylong fast is broken at sunset, so that eating a meal becomes the first act of the New Year.

The full harvest moon brings this cycle of New Year observances to a close with Succoth, the ancient and pagan-influenced Feast of the Ingathering, also known as Feast of the Tabernacles. Each family builds a simple square shelter in a place of evocative beauty and power. The roof is left open to the sky in order that Shekinah, the personification of heaven's feminine blessings, may shine down and enter the Succat Shalom, House of Peace. The interior is hung with arrangements of harvest fruits, the centerpiece of which is a special ceremonial bouquet of the branches of palm, willow, myrtle and citron, which has been shaken to the four directions. For the nine days of this Season of Joy, the family takes all of its meals, and even occasionally sleeps, in this temporary tabernacle of thanksgiving.

The Cherokee, too, celebrate a new-to-full Fall Harvest Moon cycle of New Year's ceremonies at the Green Corn Festival. In imitation of the moon which spans the range of emptiness and fullness, the Cherokee sequence of ritual, like the Jewish High Holy Days, alternates the serious and the joyous, the meditative and the exuberant, the personal and the participatory. Atohuna, Friends Made Ceremony, is a preparation period during which the dwelling places of the physical and spiritual realms are cleansed. People fast and bathe in the rivers at sunset. Evil spirits are banished from the tribe, driven away with poles made of sycamore. Fires are smothered and new sacred flames are kindled. On the full harvest moon, the ceremonial cycle culminates with the Great Moon Ceremony, Nuwatiegwa, which celebrates the eternal creation of the world anew each year.

The new harvest moon also initiates the ten-day Hindu festival of Durga Puja, when Kali, the Goddess of Life and Death, returns to earth. In her aspect as Durga, Indian woman working with flowersKali is the Queen Mother, the fiercely maternal Amazon animal who battles all odds in defense of her offspring. People invite Her into their homes to partake of this year's harvest and to consume the last husks, the dry dross of the previous crop. Here, too, personal preparations are made through cleansing and fasting. Altars and offerings are laid for Her in the annual struggle to overcome the Demon King Ravana, i.e. drought, hardship, and famine.

Punjab, India's granary, is the site of the most exuberant demonstrations on Baisakh, the harvest festival celebrated throughout northern India. The focal point of the festival is a strenuous folk dance, the bhangra, which enacts the entire pastoral process from ploughing to sowing to weeding to reaping to winnowing. The last movement is of the farmer joyously celebrating the harvest. In the state of Kerala, the most important harvest feast is Onam. For ten days, women decorate their courtyards and public plazas with intricate mandala patterns: billions of flower petals painstakingly arranged on the ground like a mantle on the body of Mother Earth, stitched in delicate designs from Her own hair.

Ancient Greek women, too, celebrated fall harvest festivals. Though unrelated to the cycle of the moon, the Thesmorphia was held in October in honor of Demeter, the goddess of the fields and fertility, and Her daughter, Persephone, who dies like the grain in the autumn; incubates there, and then reemerges the following spring. ear of cornDemeter's temple at Eleusis was the site of a ten-day ritual which dramatized the great mysteries of the cycle of death and eternal renewal, a commemoration of the capacity of Mother Earth to regenerate Herself and Her creations, especially us.

For the first nine days of the Thesmorphia, the participants fasted and refrained from sexual congress with men. During this time they purified themselves by bathing in holy water and made offerings of the harvest to Demeter and Persephone. Roman women would later gift the Goddess Ceres in the same manner: with baskets full of pomegranates, cakes of baked grain, ivy bouquets, reeds, and a serpent. Lanterns were lit for Persephone, night lights in Her underground womb. The festival culminated with an evening of games, the sharing of mysteries, and finally a great feast, the Pouring of Plenty.

The symbol of initiation to the highest degree of the Eleusian Mysteries was the Shibboleth, Hebrew for the sacred ear of grain which was exalted throughout the ancient lands of the Near East at the festivals of the Fertility Goddesses. At Eleusis, "there was exhibited as the great, as the admirable, the most perfect object of mystical contemplation, an ear of corn (wheat, barley) that had been reaped in silence."

Adoration of the grain as representative of the Great Goddess of the Good Earth moved West and North with the Romans. Vestiges of the practices of Her worship are evident in the Harvest Home Festivals of Old Europe, the Feasts of the Ingathering. When most of the grain crop had been cut, the last sheaths were bundled and tied into shapes which were meant to embody the spirit of living fecundity and growth. These anthropomorphic figures cleverly woven from grain were called variously: Corn Maid, Corn Mother, Harvest Mother, Great Mother, Grandmother, Mother Sheath, Old Wife, the Caillech, the Hag, the Queen, the Bride.

The Corn Dollies were everywhere treated with great deference and elaborate ceremony. Typically they were decorated and dressed, borne aloft and processed through the fields and villages as symbols of bounty, beauty, and benevolence. Local cultural tradition dictated what was ultimately done with the sheath doll. In Poland, she was kept carefully dry and protected so that her seeds could be planted when the fields were sown in spring. pumpkins in the fieldIn Britain, she was doused with water, inseminated as it were, to ensure the fertile growth of future grain. In France, she was placed on top of a pyre in the center of a circle of reapers who leaped in jubilation around her. She was then set afire with fervent prayers for continued successful crop seasons.

Our own familiar fall festival of Thanksgiving is an amalgam of Old and New World harvest celebrations. The pilgrims brought the Harvest Home festival from England with them and very little else. By the time the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts in December of 1620, all of their supplies had been depleted at sea. They had little left with which to survive the first winter. By spring, only 55 of the original 102 settlers were still alive. And even then they had no seeds to plant. It was only through the generous sponsorship of the Wampanoag Indians that they were able to establish a foothold and ultimately thrive -- thrive and spread like the native vines, sending out endless sticky tendrils strangulating everything they touched.

The locals introduced the colonists to the indigenous foods of Turtle Island (a common original name for the Western Hemisphere) and taught them cultivation techniques. The pilgrims' first crops of corn and squash and pumpkins were planted and harvested successfully. Abundant stores of cranberries and oysters were collected, countless deer and turkey shot. A major celebration was clearly called for, so the Indian hosts were invited. Ninety attended, joining the fifty-some-odd whites. Four English women and two teenage girls did all the cooking for the giant banquet at which all sat in fellowship and true thanksgiving as was done in both the Harvest Home tradition and also that of the great Autumn Green Corn Festivals celebrated by the agricultural tribes of North, Southeast, and Southwest Turtle Island. Games were played. Corn was popped. Arms were displayed. The rest is history.

I liked the whites
I liked the whites

I gave them fruits
I gave them fruits

I am crying for thirst
I am crying for thirst

All is gone --
I Have nothing to eat.

Arapaho Ghost Dance Song

We, too, have nothing to eat. It is autumn and we haven't put anything away safe for our own survival. It is almost Thanksgiving and what will we celebrate? We hunger and thirst for the spirit of reverence and respect for the world which sustains us, something we lost or purposely misplaced along the way. In our push for ascendancy, for power, for dominance - over the land, over each other, over the odds, over Mother Nature Herself - we have poisoned our providence, sullied the source of our own livelihood, and endangered our very ability to live at all.

And what of our children? Our grandchildren? Our great grandchildren? What have we willed for them?

Maybe the recent conservative infatuation with the restoration of family values — albeit singularly shallow and dangerously narrow-minded and myopic — has risen to reflect a profoundly-felt human desire for a realigned awareness and re-connection with those things in life that really matter. Maybe, just maybe, we can begin to remember ourselves as part of the potentially functional family of humanity which we really are. Kin, clan, mishpocheh to all the inhabitants of the Universe. As the Lakota say, Mitakuye Oyasin, All My Relations.

For this, let us toil. For this, let us be thankful.

Graphics Credits

  • harvesting tea in Sri Lanka, courtesy of Clara Natoli and morgueFile.
  • harvest moon, courtesy of simu and morgueFIle.
  • apples, courtesy of Darren Hester and morgueFile.
  • Indian woman working with flowers, courtesy of hagit berkovich and stock.xchng.
  • ear of corn, courtesy of Kenn Kiser and morgueFIle.
  • pumpkins, courtesy of Kathy Bishop and morgueFIle.
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