When you look at the history of holidays, it becomes clear that the human race spends a lot of time whooping it up about food.
Take first-fruit festivals, which have been hot events around the globe since ancient times, cheering—depending on who and where you are—the initial ripening of everything from barley to yams, raspberries, and sugarcane.
The ancient Israelites paraded their first ripe crops—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates, and olives—to the temple, accompanied by music and carried in baskets trimmed with silver and gold. Early Christians celebrated Lammas—August 1—with loaves of bread baked from the first ripe grain. (A rowdier precursor of Lammas was the Gaelic first-fruit festival Lughnasadh-often centered around the first ripe bilberries—which featured bonfires, horse races, and the sacrifice of a bull.) The Creeks and Seminoles of the American southeast threw Green Corn Dances in honor of the first ripe corn. Zambians celebrate N’cwala, a three-week-long first-fruits bash, highlights of which are dancing and the presentation of the season’s first ripe pumpkin to the village chief.
A successful harvest, to our ancestors, was the ultimate safety net, the modern-day equivalent of money in the bank-and it was worth a party. The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the oldest harvest festivals in the world, dating back to at least the 10th century BCE. It’s associated with bountiful crops and babies, and is traditionally celebrated with mooncakes, round pastries stuffed with red bean or lotus seed paste and whole salted egg yolks, these last representing the fertility-associated full moon.
The American Thanksgiving—first celebrated in 1621 by the surviving Pilgrims and assorted Wampanoag Indians—traces its roots to ancient British harvest festivals. These were traditionally celebrated on Michaelmas Day—October 10, until the Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1752, bumped it back to September 29—and involved a wildly costumed Lord of the Harvest, song and dance, horseplay, and a lot of eating and drinking. The featured pièce de résistance at such feasts was roast goose—supposedly because Queen Elizabeth I was dining on goose on the crucial Michaelmas when the news arrived of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The delighted monarch decreed that the day would be celebrated hereafter with a feast of goose. Actually the tradition appears to be far older and possibly more mercenary. An old British folk saying claims “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day/Want not for money all the year.”
Also on the harvest table may have been bowls of blackberries: according to British folklore, Michaelmas Day is the last day of the year on which blackberries should be picked. It’s also, supposedly, the day on which blackberries originated. One story holds that Michaelmas (also known as Devil Spits Day) is the very day the Devil was tossed out of heaven and fell to earth. He landed in a blackberry bush, which so infuriated him, that he cursed them, stamped on them, and spat on them, turning them forever after black as coal.
Another round of traditional festivals occurs in the early spring at planting time—and the awfulness of some of these traditions indicates just how serious the planting season was. Commonly a person or persons was done to death to ensure a lush harvest. The African Marimo tribe traditionally chose a short, fat man, a look-alike for a seed. The Aztecs celebrated Hueytozoztli—a festival dedicated to Tlaloc, the unreliable rain god, and intended to encourage the growth of corn—at which participants ate, drank, and sacrificed dozens of children.
The Romans, in late April, celebrated Cerealia, dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and her twelve lesser assistant-gods, among them Vervactor (“He who plows”), Insitor (“He who plants seeds”), Serritor (“He who digs”), and—my favorite—Subruncinator (“He who weeds”). Festivities included the sacrifice of pigs, horse races in the Circus Maximus, and the release of foxes with their tails set on fire. The fox custom, according to Ovid, dates to an incident when a farm boy caught a fox attacking his chickens and attempted to kill it by setting it on fire. The flaming fox dashed into a wheat field (sacred to Ceres) and destroyed the grain. Ever since, opines Ovid, foxes have been punished at the feast of Ceres-though frankly, it seems to me, it should have been sadistic farm boys.
The Christian holiday Easter was a originally a springtime planting and fertility festival, dedicated to the goddess Oestre or Ostara; and May Day was once a wild party, celebrating fertility, new crops, and sex. Girls dashed out a daybreak to wash their faces in morning dew; houses were decorated with flowers; and young people danced around ribbon-draped Maypoles. The Maypole, the salacious meaning of which no one could miss, was condemned by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell; deemed “a heathenish vanity,” it was forbidden by an act of Parliament in 1644. (In the same year, Cromwell also banned Christmas.)
Modern food festivals-of which there are now tens of thousands—are less about fertility, rain, and gratitude that the corn crop made it, than about—well, sheer indulgence in favored foods. These get-togethers started small, during the hardscrabble years of the Depression in the 1930s, when communities gathered for group dinners and pot-luck suppers. Such mini-celebrations provided social support and good company, and featured favorite regional foods: baked beans, gumbo, chicken pot-pie, pulled pork, clam chowder, Brunswick stew.
Today, worldwide, people pull out all stops to praise and promote their local food specialties. Over 100,000 people show up for the annual California Avocado Festival in Carpinteria, CA (“3 Days of Peace, Love, and Guacamole”), and nearly as many descend on Rockland, ME, for the Maine Lobster Festival which features 25,000 pounds of fresh-caught Maine lobster, all prepared for the table in the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker. (Also provided for lobster fans: lobster rolls, lobster salad, lobster bisque, lobster ravioli, and deep-fried lobster dumplings.) Tennessee’s National Cornbread Festival features a cornbread cook-off, cornbread eating contests, and an amazing array of cornbreads; and the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival is a spectacular gala on the shore of Lake Champlain, featuring hundreds of artisanal cheeses, craft beers, and wines. Nationwide, we’ve got festivals for everything from strawberries to asparagus. You name a food, and someone, somewhere, celebrates it.
I don’t mean that these aren’t fun—who doesn’t love food?-but the change in the nature of food festivals is a reflection of how far we’ve come from our agricultural past. Over 80 percent of Americans now live in towns or cities, and of the rural 19 (or so) percent, just 2 percent lives on farms. Most of us don’t worry about plowing, planting, and harvest anymore. That’s somebody else’s problem.
Except that it’s not.
Modern-day food festivals bring to mind the clueless animals in the tale of the Little Red Hen. In this story, traditionally used to inculcate the importance of hard work, the Hen does it all: she plants, tends, harvests, grinds, and bakes the wheat into bread all by herself, and-whenever she asks for help-is met with a chorus of “No! Not I!. Finally, when her host of non-helpers volunteer to help her eat the bread, she tells them to take a flying leap.
You can’t help but sympathize. It’s great to celebrate—you name it—wheat, tomatoes, cabbages, beans. But the real celebration isn’t about the end result. It’s about all the worry, effort, hard work, and just plain luck that got us to food in the first place.
World Food Day—established in recognition of the establishment of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization on October 16, 1945, and devoted to combat world hunger-may be the closest we come these days to millennia of celebrations in the past. This year their theme is Family Farms.
Now that’s a celebration. Because it’s not all about food.
It’s about where food comes from.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.
- Corwin, Judith Hoffman. Harvest Festivals Around the World. Julian Messner, 1995.
- Levenstein, Harvey. The Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America. University of California Press, 2003.