Although a pagan ‘Haerfest’ (Autumn) festival was celebrated in Britain long before the tradition was brought into the Christian church, the harvest festival that many of us are familar with today, which is marked with songs, prayers and decorations in churches across the UK in late September or early October, dates back to the Victorian era. In fact, it began right around the time that the Three Counties Asylum (TCA) opened its doors.
The tradition of celebrating a good harvest is as old as farming itself – going back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome – and farming was, after all, a large part of what TCA did. Working outdoors, for those patients who were well enough, was (and still is) considered good for mental health, and many patients worked alongside the employed farm staff, helping to produce a large proportion of the food consumed at the asylum. It follows, then, that, the harvest festival became a significant event in the asylum’s calendar. It was obviously taken seriously, because the decorations and festivities in St Luke’s chapel often got a mention in the local papers.
In modern times, when so much of our food comes not from our own fields and gardens but from the supermarket (and often, before that, from beyond our shores), the link is a little broken, but most churches and primary schools still mark the tradition, replacing the celebration of plenty with a demonstration of charity. Where there were once baskets filled with bounty from the fields there are now collections of non-perishable food items donated by those who can spare them, and passed on to those in greatest need. This winter, there are likely to be more people than ever before who rely on it. If you would like to donate to a local food charity, the following three are a good place to start.
The Need Project, based in Stotfold, is a Christian organisation that supplies food and food parcels, and occasionally other items, to local people in need. There are Need Project food collection boxes right across the region, including in Fairfield Tesco and Fairfield Community Hall. You can also make cash donations through the charity’s website. Visit theneedproject.org for more information.
Feed Up Warm Up is a Hertfordshire-based homeless charity that runs a drop-in centre one evening a week in Hitchin, and another in Stevenage. Rather than providing food parcels to take away they offer a safe space where guests can enjoy a hot meal or a coffee and benefit from other services – from haircuts to counselling. They are grateful for donations of food or money, and are always looking for volunteers, too. Visit feedupwarmup.co.uk to find out more.
The Best Before Cafe is a volunteer-run group based in a shop in Letchworth. It collects supermarket food that would otherwise go into landfill and redistributes it to customers in return for a small donation. It is open to everyone. Visit bestbeforecafe.co.uk for more information, including details of the shop’s location and opening hours, or to donate.
If you are struggling to make ends meet yourself, there are several bodies that can refer you to The Need Project, including schools, doctors’ surgeries and religious organisations.