Raise the song of harvest home

IMAG0967I have told this story many times during my 14-plus years at Holy Communion, and I might as well document it here for posterity’s sake. Seeing it in print might happily relieve our choristers and parishioners from hearing me tell it again.

I grew up in a small South Carolina town, and each year we attended an ecumenical community Thanksgiving worship service on Thanksgiving Eve. On Thanksgiving Day we would then travel one-hour’s drive to either my grandmother’s house in Greenwood or to the very large antebellum home of one of my great aunts in Waterloo (population 202).

When I learned that Holy Communion’s longtime parish tradition includes a Thanksgiving Day 10 a.m. service complete with choir and Thanksgiving hymns and big organ music, I was, shall we say, not exactly pleased. However…

Once I experienced our Thanksgiving Day liturgy, which begins with the Thanksgiving hymn “Come, ye thankful people, come” in procession and with a glorious soprano descant on the final stanza, I was captivated, convinced and permanently hooked.

Indeed, there is something very significant about singing these Thanksgiving Day hymns actually on the day. Moreover, our Book of Common Prayer includes proper readings and collect for the feast day along with a beautiful Litany of Thanksgiving that we use each year.

But no one told me about the resplendent harvest adornments that are dutifully placed at the high altar and in the chancel each year by our festival decorations committee. If you think our Georgian Colonial church is beautiful, it is no more exquisite than it is when decorated for Thanksgiving. Wheat, fruit, gourds, vegetables are artistically placed all around, setting the stage for one of the most meaningful liturgies of the year.

And speaking of “Come, ye thankful people, come,” there is no more genuinely Anglican hymn than this one. Hymnist and poet Dr. Henry Alford (1810-1871) was a fifth-generation Anglican priest, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, and Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.

Written in 1844, Alford originally titled this text “After Harvest,” and it was first published in Hymns and Psalms (1844). Alford’s opening stanza is a celebration of the harvest and a call to give thanks to God for it, while the last stanzas are inspired by the Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30).

So, take my word for it: Thanksgiving Day Eucharist is worth the effort. Set the dinner table on Wednesday, put the turkey in the oven and set the timer, prepare most of the side dishes early, and come to church for an hour on Thanksgiving morning. You’ll be as enthralled as I am!

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