Shall We Dance?
Harvest home: Restoring awe to a season of plenty.
—by Amy Brunvand
Father Jack: No, no; what’s the word I’m looking for? Spectacle? That’s not it. The word to describe a sacred and mysterious…? [Slowly and deliberately] You have a ritual killing. You offer up sacrifice. You have dancing and incantations. What is the name for that whole—for that—? Gone. Lost it. My vocabulary has deserted me.
— Dancing at Lughnasa/Brian Friel
In the opening scene of Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, Maggie, the oldest of five Irish sisters, jokingly suggests that they should name their radio “Lugh” after the old Celtic God of the Harvest. As the sisters do their household chores, a fast Irish tune comes over the airwaves and suddenly the sisters break into a wild dance. But it turns out to be a last hurrah. As the play unfolds, Christian ideas of propriety collide with Pagan spirit of seasonal harvest celebration (called Lughnasa in Irish tradition), and by the end of the play the sense of loss becomes almost unbearable.
I couldn’t help thinking about Dancing at Lughnasa when I went looking for a harvest dance and found instead an absence of celebration. It seems that traditions of “harvest home,” the traditional English harvest festival, celebrated with music, feasting and dancing, faded out about the same time that family farms were replaced by factory farms and processed food.
In The Dance of Time: the Origins of the Calendar (Arcade: 2004), Michael Judge notes, “The old harvest festivals that used to crowd around the autumnal equinox have been displaced by two other fall celebrations, Halloween and Thanksgiving.” While Halloween retains some carnival spunk, a typical American Thanksgiving tends towards staid and pious. We recite an awkward prayer, stuff down a heavy meal of turkey and root vegetables and settle down on the couch to watch football on TV. Bonfires and wild dancing? Out of the question. As Friel’s play reminds us, something essential has been lost from the harvest season.
We do have harvest celebrations in Utah. For instance, Pleasant Grove Strawberry Days in June, Bear Lake Raspberry Days in August, Green River’s Melon Days in September. The Celtic god Lugh would no doubt approve of Mount Pleasant’s dearly departed Rhubarb Festival, in which rhubarb wine starred. In the old days we used to refer to the annual October school break as “deer hunt holiday” in celebration of wild-caught food. Various county fairs celebrate food and agriculture. But what seems to be missing nowadays is any sense of mystical connection with the Earth and the turn of seasons. Lugh and all the other old gods of the harvest have been forgotten, replaced by agricultural technology.
Until very recently the harvest season was a central part of human existence. Re-read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to get a sense of what it meant not to have enough in store. There is a particularly harrowing part where the snowbound family grinds seeds to make bread at the risk of having nothing to plant come spring.
Nowadays, when food comes in a package from the grocery store, there is far less urgency to prepare for winter. But there is also a growing sense that our relationship with food has gone seriously awry. It’s a sign of how bad things are that food guru Michael Pollan needs to tell us: “Eat food.”
In every issue of CATALYST and this one in particular, we celebrate eating food—slow food, local food, backyard hens, farmers markets, community supported agriculture, gardening, home cooking, and all the good cheer and good health that comes with sharing the harvest. But there’s still a missing piece of the puzzle. The celebrations we have kept offer gratitude for delicious food, but focus mainly on human pleasure; the Harvest Home ceremonies that we have let go of expressed awe at the human place within grander seasonal cycles of the Earth. And people danced.
Michael Pollan includes awe as a necessary part of repairing our relationship to food and eating. In Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Peguin: 2009), Pollan says that food is most importantly a form of communion with other people, other species and nature. Rule #62 is “Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t.”
And even if Michael Pollan doesn’t happen to mention it, if anybody suggests dancing at Lughnasa, say yes.
Amy Brunvand is a longtime CATALYST contributor. She spends her days as a University of Utah librarian, and is often found participating in some form of dance at night.