Rural festivals in the church and their hymns

Most churches still hold Harvest Festivals but the other three agricultural celebrations, Plough Sunday, Rogation and Lammas, are much rarer.  Water Stratford is trying to preserve them.  The hymn We plough the fields and scatter is usually associated with harvest but is equally appropriate for all four occasions and we use it for each of them.  In 1948 the poet and cricket commentator John Arlott, then a BBC producer, wrote a hymn specifically for each of Plough Sunday, Rogation and Harvest.  His harvest hymn, God whose farm is all creation, is well-known but the full words of the other two were not on the internet until now.  We obtained them from the only source known to us, the 1951 BBC hymn-book, and his executors have kindly given us permission to use them here.


PLOUGH SUNDAY celebrations go back to ancient times.  Once the twelve days of Christmas were over, a plough was brought into church to be blessed, sometimes after it had been pulled through the streets amidst much celebration.  The following day, Plough Monday, was notionally the occasion to start ploughing, a significant event at a time when most people worked on the land.  Plough Sunday is officially the first Sunday after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas), so between 7th and 13th January, but now, when much ploughing starts in the autumn, it is held any time in January.  On 17th January 2016 we sang John Arlott's contribution to Plough Sunday for the first time.  Although he wrote four-line verses as shown below, we sang it as two eight-line verses to the tune Blaenwern (Love Divine) and they made a very effective combination.
By the rutted roads we follow,
Fallow fields are rested now;
All along the waking country
Soil is waiting for the plough.


In the yard the plough is ready,
Ready to the ploughman’s hand,
Ready for the crow-straight furrow,
Farmer’s sign across God’s land.


God, in this good land you lend us,
Bless the service of the share;
Light our thinking with your wisdom,
Plant your patience in our care.

This is first of all man’s labours,
Man must always plough the earth;
God, be with us at the ploughing,
Touch our harvest at its birth.

Words printed with the permission of the Estate of John Arlott

ROGATION should, strictly speaking, be celebrated on the Sunday before Ascension Day but, as this depends on the date of Easter, we tend to standardise on the third Sunday in May when the countryside is at its best and there is a reasonable prospect of good weather.  The word Image result for rogationRogation comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, and it has always been a time to ask God for protection.  One of its origins was the Roman holiday of Robigalia, at which a dog was sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, the god of agricultural disease, who was asked for protection of crops from wheat rust.  As with so many festivals, Christianity built on the pagan origins: Rogation typically included fasting and abstinence in preparation for the Ascension celebrations, and farmers often had their crops blessed by a priest.  A common feature of Rogation was beating the bounds, in which a procession of parishioners, led by the minister, churchwardens and choir, walked round the boundary of their parish and prayed for its protection in the forthcoming year.  If they went round the entire parish it must have taken all day, or more, so perhaps it used to continue on the three days between Rogation Sunday and Ascension Day (always a Thursday) which are known as Rogation Days.  John Arlott's Rogation hymn is:
We watched the winter turn its back,
Its grip is loosened now,
And shoot and leaf have signed their green
On brown of field and bough.

From ambushed frost that kills by night,
And storm with bludgeoned hand,
From soft and secret-moving blight,
Dear God, protect our land.

And send soft rain to feed the crops,
Sun-warm them gold and red;
So grant the prayer we learned from Christ,
Give us our daily bread.
Words printed with the permission of the Estate of John Arlott

Image result for lammasLAMMAS, a contraction of loaf-mass, or hlaf-maesse in Old English, is an ancient feast at which a loaf made from the first wheat crop of the year was blessed in church.  This loaf was used for 'magical' purposes in Anglo-Saxon times, being divided into four and placed at each corner of a barn to protect the grain being stored there.  But the festival also echoes the words of Moses quoted in the Lammas hymn, Fair waved the golden corn

The first-ripe ears are for the Lord,
The rest he gives to man.


Lammas falls on 1st August and the date cannot be changed as it is a Scottish quarter day.  This creates problems that probably account for the rarity of its celebration.  Not only does it come at a time when people are more interested in summer holidays but also the shift to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 destroyed the natural link between Lammas Day and an important seasonal event - harvesting the first wheat.  The eleven days that were 'lost' meant that there was no guarantee that the wheat would be ready by 1st August.  Another problem may be that few people routinely produce their own bread any more.  Until WWI most farms would bake their own bread and brew their own beer, the latter celebrated in this couplet from Abel Kidd’s 1875 poem about Water Stratford:

No alehouse here with gilded arms,
Tho' good home-brewed is kept in farms.

Maybe a combined home-bake and home-brew service would attract interest!  In 2009 the Real Bread Campaign launched Local Loaves for Lammas to encourage people to bake or buy Real Bread and help them realise that it starts life in a field not a factory.

HARVEST FESTIVAL has no ancient roots and is thought to be a revival of Lammas but held later 
Image result for harvestin the year.  Its introduction is usually attributed to the eccentric parson Robert Stephen Hawker in his parish of Morwenstow in Cornwall in 1843.  His principal fame in Cornwall is as the writer of the Cornish anthem Trelawny (officially called The Song of the Western Men) in 1824.  There is no fixed date for Harvest Festival in the church year but it should surely not occur until the harvest is complete or, in the words of the great harvest hymn, Come, ye thankful people, come:
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.
Thus Lammas would celebrate the beginning of harvest and Harvest Festival the end.