September is a gleaming month of ripeness when the ripe red apples are ready for picking, branches bending under the weight of their fruit. We collect blackberries and elderberries in the hedgerows, hands sticky with purple juice. The grapes are ripening on the vine. Mushrooms sprout and fruit under the harvest moon. It’s a busy month of picking and nutting, preserving and storing, cider making and beer brewing. For the Anglo-Saxons this was Haefest monath (Harvest month), in Gaelic An Sultuine, the month of plenty  in Welsh Medi, the month of reaping. 
In the modern calendar, September is usually considered to be the first month of autumn, a word that comes from the Latin autumnus, which signified the passing of the year. In Germanic countries, the season was usually referred to by the term ‘harvest’ (Dutch herfst, German Herbst). In America, it is often called ‘fall’, probably referring to the falling of the leaves at this time of year or a contraction of the Middle English expression ‘fall of the year’.  The message is clear – the agricultural work of the year, and the harvest, is almost completed, the days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting colder. The year is in decline.
In modern times, at the beginning of September, the last of the grain is usually cut, though of course, this depends on the weather and latitude. The invention of farm machinery means that the harvest is often gathered in before the end of August, but in earlier times it extended into mid-September in England, and even later in Scotland and northern areas. The Harvest Home festival was one of thankfulness and relief if the harvest had been good, and great joy in all that had been accomplished, as well as one looking forward to a period of rest and release. It was a time to celebrate with festivities and feasts, and was marked with rituals and customs to ensure that the stored harvest would be safe and that life would return to the fields in the spring.
The last sheaf to be cut obviously marked the successful completion of the work and so it was treated special attention. The corn spirit was considered ‘beheaded’ when the last sheaf was cut. The sheaf, accompanied by its cutter and all the reapers, was usually taken to the farmer’s house and made into a figure or doll. These corn dollies were then kept until the following year when they were ploughed into the earth on Plough Monday (January), which marked the new start of the agricultural year. In Wales, the seed from it was mixed with the seed at planting time ‘in order to teach it to grow’.
After the harvest came the Harvest Supper. On a small farm, the feast would have been held in the kitchen or on larger farms in the specially decorated barn. It was viewed as a right by the workers and could be a costly business for the host. In Sussex caraway seed cake was traditional and was served to the workers throughout the harvesting because it was believed that the seed provided strength for them and also increased their loyalty to their employer. After the meal, there was usually dancing to the music of the fiddle, with a plentiful supply of beer and tobacco. Songs were sung and the farmer was toasted.
The Church disapproved of the overtly Pagan and raucous nature of the harvest celebrations. Many churches have harvest thanksgiving celebrations now, but these mostly date from Victorian times. In 1843 the Reverend R. S. Hawker decided to have a special service in his Morwenstow (Cornwall) parish. The idea spread and it became the custom to decorate churches with fruit, vegetables and flowers brought in from gardens (which are later distributed to the poor or used to raise funds) and to sing special hymns written for the occasion, such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter‘.
In the northern hemisphere, the month of September contains the autumn equinox. Afterwards the hours of darkness progressively become greater than the hours of light, with dawn getting later and sunset getting earlier each day – a process that will continue until the winter solstice. The Sun is in decline on its southward course.
© Anna Franklin 2020
Photo © Paul Mason
 Charles Kightly, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
 Nilsson, Martin P, Primitive Time-Reckoning, Oxford University Press 1920