In most of the world, food is cultivated rather than foraged. This means that seeds are planted in the spring, the young plants and trees are nurtured through the summer, and then the fruits of those plants and trees are harvested in the fall. Without exception, this harvest is a cause for celebration.
Ancient farming cultures had fascinating and intricate superstitions, myths, and traditions in hopes of ensuring future harvests. I’ve been thinking about how the harvest is celebrated in different parts of the world. Nowadays, we focus less on pleasing harvest gods and goddesses, and more on having a party before the long winter.
My husband Mike and I are European Americans, mostly Eastern Europe in Mike’s case and Western Europe in mine. We grew up in Minnesota, a state with a good number of Germans (though not as many as Wisconsin!), and went to elementary school in the 1970s. There was an effort in our suburb to re-popularize German culture, as it had taken a bit of a public-relations hit during the two World Wars. So, I had German-language instruction in my fourth-grade class, elected to take it from seventh grade on, and even studied it in college.
A couple of weeks ago, Mike and I decided to make it a heritage weekend. On Friday, we went to The Rhinelander in Portland. We eschewed the Oktoberfest party tent outside and settled into a booth in the pub, which ended up being much warmer and just as fun. A guy named Tony wandered through playing an accordion, and the waitstaff would occasionally stop everything to lead a round of “In München steht ein Hofbräu Haus” or “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit.” Everyone joined in.
We had a great time! I wondered why people don’t sing at the top of their lungs during every meal. Our waitress, Maria, told us she moved to Portland from Germany in 1982, and has worked at the restaurant ever since. She helped me decipher a few words in the old sayings painted in a mural across the walls.
Since Northern Hemisphere cultures harvest at around the same time, autumn weekends can get busy in the United States. That same weekend there were also huge Greek and Polish festivals. Mike grew up with Bohemian and Polish food on his dad’s side, so he was very excited to go to Polishfest.
There was a loooong line at the food tent—lots of people share Mike’s passion for cabbage rolls. Thankfully, we got cups of Żywiec beer before we went for food, and then settled under the big tent to watch some traditional courting dances.
I mused about the variations of the same folk dances in so many cultures, even square dancing in the United States, all meant to give the kids a respectable way of feeling each other out for mating purposes.
German and Polish cultures are, all in all, pretty similar. There’s beer and sausages; modest folk dances in circles with elaborately embroidered costumes; pink-cheeked Caucasians; polka music. That same weekend, while cruising around Facebook, I noticed my friend Lara posted a photo of a leafy lean-to and wrote, “The sukkah’s up!”
“What on Earth is a sukkah?” I wondered.
Well. Yet another element of Jewish culture I knew nothing about. Despite all this talk of growing up around Germans, the western suburbs of Minneapolis were also home to many Jewish families (some were both, of course). I remember the Talmud Torah bus parked outside my elementary school in the afternoon, and those same Jewish kids, who had been learning German with me a few hours before, climbing aboard the bus after the bell rang to go learn Hebrew.
I felt like I knew a lot about Judaism, having grown up with dozens of Friedmans, Goldmans, Goldsteins and Bernsteins, and attending their bar and bat mitzvahs. But, the more I learn about Jewish culture the more I realize how deep it really goes. I could write an entire blog post about the sukkah, an element of the Jewish harvest fest (and pronounced soo-ka), but I will leave it to you to research. In short, it is a temporary outdoor hut that you decorate and eat meals in; it’s not unusual to go “sukkah-hopping” and check out your friends’ sukkahs. What a great tradition! I feel like I want to start building my own sukkah at harvest time.
The innovation of agriculture has had an enormous affect on human culture. Some of the first harvest celebrations honored Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece, and Ceres in Rome; their successors span the globe. How do you celebrate the harvest?