Harvest Festivals: Traditions, Significance, and EFL Teaching Ideas
• What are harvest festivals?
• What is their significance to the wider population?
• How can TEFL/ESOL teachers use the harvest theme as a starting point for teaching English?
• The following article answers all the above questions.
Back in my youth, Harvest Festival was a staple part of the school calendar. We were invited to bring fresh produce or even cans of food into school to be used in displays. Some of these would be taken to the local church where a special service would take place. In the classroom, we would learn about where the food came from, how it was produced and harvested and therefore gain a small insight into the agricultural landscape which surrounded us. In many British Schools that is still the case, especially those which are associated with the local Christian Church. But, of course, harvest is not only a Christian tradition and there are harvest festivals in all parts of the world.
In this article, we look at the history and traditions associated with harvest in Britain and around the world and then suggest some harvest inspired activities that can be used in the TEFL/ESOL classroom.
Harvest Time in Britain
In Britain, there are some special traditions when it comes to harvest time. British churches and schools celebrate something called the ‘Harvest Festival’. This happens on the Sunday that is closest to the "harvest moon." This is the full moon that happens nearest to the start of autumn, between September 21st and 23rd.
Today, the main crops harvested in Britain are barley, rapeseed, wheat, and oats. People used to celebrate the big Autumn harvest whenever all the crops were brought in, but now there is usually a set day for it. In the past, everyone in the community, including children, helped bring in the crops because having a good harvest was very important. It meant people would have enough food for the cold winter months.
After all the hard work, people would have a big feast called the Harvest Supper or "Harvest Home." The word "harvest" comes from an old English word “hærfest” which means "autumn," the season when we gather food from the land.
One of the old celebrations that influenced British harvest traditions is called Lammas. Lammas is also known as "Lughnasadh" in Celtic tradition. People who follow this tradition still celebrate it in August in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and some other parts of Europe. It's all about the first fruits of the harvest season.
During Lammas, people make "corn dollies" out of straw or wheat. These are like straw or wheat dolls. They represent the spirit of the grain and bring good luck for a good harvest. Lammas is also a time for fun fairs and festivals. There are games, music, and dancing. Some villages have traditional folk music and Morris dancing.
Harvest Around the World
People all over the world celebrate harvest in different ways that show off their culture and traditions. These festivals are a way to say thank you for a great harvest and mark the end of the growing season. Let's take a look at how some other places celebrate harvest time.
In Israel, there's a holiday called Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. It usually happens in September or October and lasts for seven days. During this time, people built temporary huts called "sukkot" to remember how the Israelites lived during their journey through the desert. They eat their meals in these huts, and some even sleep in them to feel closer to their history.
They also use something called the "Four Species," which are special plants and fruits, in their prayers and rituals. The sukkot are decorated with colourful fruits and vegetables gathered from the harvest.
Olivagando, Magione (Italy)
In Italy, there's a festival in November called Olivagando. It celebrates the olive harvest and the feast day of St. Clement. They have a special Mass where a priest blesses the new olive oil. Then, the town hosts a special dinner at a nearby castle which was built in the 12th century.
Blessing of the Sea (Greece)
In Greece, they have a special tradition related to the sea during harvest time. It happens during Epiphany, which remembers the visit of the Wise Men to baby Jesus. People go from local churches to the ocean, where a priest blesses a gold cross and throws it into the waves. Men jump in to try and get it first. This brings blessings and ensures good fishing for the year ahead.
Vendimia, Mendoza (Argentina)
In the Southern Hemisphere, autumn or fall begins when it's spring in the Northern Hemisphere. In February, the Archbishop of Mendoza in Argentina blesses the first grapes of the season with holy water and offers them to God. This starts a whole month of festivities in the Mendoza region. They have parades with beauty queens on floats and a big show with music, dancing, and fireworks. During the parade, they choose a Harvest Queen.
So, all around the world, people have different ways of celebrating harvest time. It's a time to be thankful for the good food and to have some fun with friends and family.
The theme of harvest can be an excellent way to engage English language students. Some of them will have personal knowledge and experience of participating in the local harvest, which can be translated into English. For others, you may need to spark their curiosity about where food comes from before comparing and contrasting harvest traditions from around the world. Here are some ideas…
Start by introducing and discussing key vocabulary related to harvest, such as crops, fields, farmers, and other agricultural terms. You could find or create crossword puzzles, word searches, or bingo with harvest-related vocabulary to make learning fun.
For younger students do a ‘Picture Brainstorm’. Split the class into manageable groups (ideally about 4 students per group). Give each group a large piece of paper (A3 or larger) and a selection of coloured pens and pencils. Ask each group to draw as many things connected to harvest as they can think of (suggest fruit, vegetables and animals) within a time limit of about 10 to 15 minutes. You could award a prize to the group that draws the most items or for the most interesting/artistic poster. Once the posters have been completed get the students to label the posters, first in their own language and then in English (using dictionaries or internet enabled technology). This part could also be done as a race between groups.
For older or more advanced students try brainstorming idioms and expressions related to harvest, such as ‘reap what you sow’ or ‘the fruits of one's labour.’ This could be done as a board race or on paper with points awarded for expressions that no other group thought of.
Once key vocabulary has been established, create flashcards with images and definitions to reinforce vocabulary retention.
Reading and Comprehension
Select age and level-appropriate texts like short stories, poems, or articles that revolve around harvest traditions, farming practices, or the significance of the harvest season.
After reading, ask comprehension questions to assess understanding and encourage discussions. Alternatively, give different groups of students different texts and get them to write a set number of comprehension questions to be passed on to other groups.
For older or more advanced students read extracts from famous literary works like John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" or Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" to explore deeper themes related to harvest and society. Students could then choose poems or extracts to read aloud to practice their pronunciation and intonation. Or you could encourage them to write their own English language poems based on a harvest theme.
Grammar-The Passive Voice
Descriptions of farming practices in general and harvesting methods, in particular, are a good opportunity to teach and practice the use of the passive voice when describing processes.
Pre-teach any required vocabulary associated with fruit and vegetables including adjectives associated with taste and flavour. Then ask younger students to talk about their favourite fruits and vegetables. Perhaps ask them to bring in food and have a ‘Taste-In’ to compare and contrast local produce. This will revise adjectives and practice using comparatives and superlatives.
If any of your students (at any level) live on a farm, ask them to talk about their life at harvest time of the year and answer questions from the rest of the class. Follow up by asking the class to conduct interviews and write newspaper style reports.
If there is nobody in your class with personal experience of farming or agriculture, play audio recordings or videos related to harvest festivals, farm life, or interviews with farmers. These can easily be found on websites such as ‘Country Life’ or ‘BBC Bitesize.’ Then discuss key themes or surprising facts as a class or in groups.
With intermediate or advanced students organize class discussions or debates on topics like organic vs. conventional farming methods.
Have students write their own short stories or poems centred around a harvest theme.
Assign persuasive essays on topics like the importance of supporting local farmers or sustainable agriculture.
Encourage students to create visual aids, posters, or PowerPoint presentations explaining the harvest process or the cultural significance of harvest festivals in different regions.
Role-Playing and Drama
Depending on the age and level of your learners, set up scenarios where students play the roles of farmers and their families bringing in the harvest. The role plays could be set in modern times or in the past. Ask students to think about what problems and conflicts could affect the family while gathering the harvest. Alternatively, act out aspects of harvest themed festivals from around the world.
Explore English recipes using harvest ingredients like apples, pumpkins, or corn. Have students follow the recipes and discuss the cooking process in English.
Harvest Festival Celebration
If possible within your school, plan a class "harvest festival" where students prepare traditional dishes, create decorations, and perform sketches or songs related to the harvest theme. This can be a fun and immersive way to practice English.
We hope our harvest suggestions have given you some ‘food for thought!’ Don’t forget to download our free Harvest Festivals | EFL Worksheets for some ready-made activities.