The boughs do shake and the bells do ring,
so merrily comes the harvest in.
We usually end up having at least three Thanksgivings at Fox Hill. The first few are not written onto the calendar, but by September, as the last of the garden bounty rolls in, celebration is in the air. This may be a hark-back to the old English festival of Harvest Home, also known as Ingathering, which I like better, as it gathers people in as well as crops. There are communal games and hayrides in the afternoon; anyone who wants to wear out his or her arms can have a go at cider pressing. For dinner, there may be roasted chicken and roasted vegetables, and roasted … well … anything else someone is inspired to roast, and buttery golden corn on the cob and fresh salads with the last of the vine-ripe tomatoes. With the long trestle tables and the happy bustle of families and friends swapping small talk and complimenting the dishes, it’s rather reminiscent of a Redwall feast.
Sometimes September will bless us with a double bounty, if Bruderhof members who have joined us from South Korea host a Chuseok festival, a celebration of the mid-autumn full moon, involving traditional games, music, and rice cakes steamed over pine needles.
These banquets usually end in song – four-part harmonies for all the rich autumnal melodies that welcome the season:
By all these lovely tokens, September days are here
With summer’s best of weather,
and autumn’s best of cheer.
Someone will always spoonerize that last line into “autumn’s chest of beer,” which is more accurate for the next month’s celebration:
Oktoberfest! This one reaches back to German roots that most of our folks don’t actually share, but that is where it all began for the Bruderhof more than a hundred years ago. So, much as everyone becomes Irish in March, October is our month to break out the craft beer, pull sea-salted supersized soft pretzels out of a brick oven, throw on a sizzling bratwurst, and apply honey mustard liberally.
Last year, the schoolchildren and teachers hosted this event in dirndls and lederhosen, hats and ribbons. Performances might be anything from country dances to folk songs from the old country, such as:
Our joy new we share, throw our hats in the air.
Juheisa! The harvest is in.
If your joy can best be expressed by throwing your hat in the air, now is the time to do it. Oktoberfest isn’t just about food; there are often events such as a log-sawing contest, pumpkin toss, obstacle course, or hay-bale maze. Everyone mingles and munches until the sun goes down.
Mid-October is peak fall color in the Hudson Valley, and I love to go down to our wide, shallow lake around sunset, when the maples and the evening sky paint the surface.
The world is full of color, ’tis autumn once again,
And leaves of gold and crimson are lying in the lane.
There’s beauty of light and shadow,
glory of wheat and rye,
And color of shining water under a sunset sky.
Now the dusk falls before the smallest children’s bedtime, which means there is one more celebration to fit in – this one firstly a feast for the eyes. Lantern walks are a time-honored Bruderhof tradition; perhaps in the dim mists of time they were connected to the German Saint Martin’s Day parade, but now they are just a chance for the children to construct or choose the most creative paper lantern (yes, there are real candles inside, small occasional flare-ups notwithstanding) and savor the sight of an entire community wending its sparkling way around the premises, singing songs about lights that hold their own against the autumn dark. As a kid I didn’t consider the walk complete unless we circled the pond, so that each side of the parade could see the others’ lights reflected and dancing in mirrored patterns. When everyone is cold and hungry, we reconvene in the lantern-lit dining hall for deep-fried homemade doughnuts, dripping in chocolate, caramel, or honey frosting. Then the families drift home – satisfied, sticky, and sleepy.
You’d think we’d be partied out by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, and in a way it is a bit more subdued, as feasts go. November has closed over the fields and the leaves are down. Everything that can be harvested has been; now the good things come out of the freezers and root cellars. Neighbors from the surrounding area often join our community for Thanksgiving dinner, though sometimes we’ve surprised them by serving roast duck and sauerkraut. I’ve never known the cooks to swap out the fresh pumpkin pie for anything else, though.
Last year there was a paper tree on the wall, and a flurry of paper leaves on every table, plus pens. Everyone wrote down something they were thankful for on a leaf (good friends, laughter, roast duck, my favorite teacher, winter soup, Grandpa, Christmas coming). The kids were kept busy all dinner climbing up and down a stepladder to apply them to the twigs, while some leaves became detatched and drifted down onto their heads to muffled giggles.
To me, rather than a family-and-football holiday, Thanksgiving is more of a chance to cast my mind back over the goodness of the year, before turning toward the next great celebration. Advent will be here in a few days; the gatherings and songs of that season have an even more sacred and joyous beauty, and draw us closer together. But for now, it’s time to stand under a November sky and hold out a quiet thanks for what has been and what is coming.
On the far horizon the clouds are heaped like snow
And the theater of heaven is bright with sovereign glow,
The bees are filling their hives with a dusty gold,
And the heart is filled with more than a heart can hold.