There are many games associated with the harvest season. There are the seemingly infinite varieties of grabbing and transporting things without using the hands. I’ve bobbed for apples, passed an orange down the line using just my armpits, transferred raw eggs from one person to another with popsicle sticks, grabbed an apple on a string with my teeth. And there was that one time someone thought to intensify that particular apple-on-a-string trick by putting the apple on one side of a skewer and putting a lighted candle on the other, all suspended on really long lengths of twine tied off in the hay loft rafters. It was supposedly traditional. Can’t help thinking it couldn’t have been all that common a tradition or there would have been quite a few more burned barns in autumn.
There are odd races in which getting to the finish line at all is a win. I’ve been blindfolded, tied back to back, had a leg tied to someone else’s leg, made to run backwards using a spoon or tiny mirror to avoid pitfalls — or worse yet, not allowed to use my eyes at all but forced into taking direction from a teammate. I’ve had to run while reciting the alphabet backwards or counting by three’s (not as easy as it sounds). I’ve been doused with an actual firehose while carrying a greased watermelon. I’ve run all manner of obstacle courses often while lugging awkward loads. And I’ve done a fair bit of running on my knees — which is probably one of the reasons they hurt so much these days.
Then there are the bonfire challenges. Jump the fire, try to light a candle from the roaring flames, light a weed stalk “torch” and then run to the far side of the party field to light a candle with that. Even toasting marshmallows is its own sort of challenge, though I actually like it when they fizz up in flames and turned to a sooty molten lump on a stick.
Then there are the practical contests. There’s rodeo for starters. The big steers and stallions are for the professionals, but it’s just as fun to watch tots try to rope a saw-horse — or a really patient ewe. Then, if you have never been to a corn husking bee, you absolutely have to remedy that. I’m pretty sure your local agricultural fair has one. And along those lines, there are also contests for brewing and preserving, baking and flower arranging. These can get quite fiercely competitive. So I’ve held quite a few of my own bake-off’s and craft challenges. Everybody gets a prize, but the judges (usually me) are the real winners! Some day I’ll get brave and do a jam-boree… But I’m not yet ready to trust the canning process of others. I do like looking at the luscious jars though.
Halloween, the last of the harvest festivals, has a great number of what can only be called gross-out games. Put on a blindfold and stick your hand in a bowl of yuck, made all the worse by gleeful narration from older brothers. Or eat from a glistening pile of unidentified ick with unhelpful nameplates like eye of newt (disguised peas), dog tongue (dyed pickled cucumbers), dead mens’ fingers (boiled carrots), and cow liver (actually…). As a teenager, my friends and I created a haunted woods which was its own sort of gross obstacle course. Those brave enough to buy a ticket (proceeds went to a noble cause… usually involving beer… ahem… ) had to walk through the dark acre of woods behind my house, enduring ghouls dropping from tree limbs, a wooden casket of vampire laid across the path, various piles of blood and guts and body parts (I cooked an inordinate amount of pasta in October), disorienting lights and will-o-the-wisps, and Berlioz, Verdi and Bach — sometimes all at once.
Versions of all these games have existed for centuries, maybe millennia, maybe for as long as we’ve been human. Play of this sort — where tension is magnified and made ludicrous — is how we cope with real threats. We laugh in the face of fear, shout riddikulus at boggarts, pull the teeth out of abominable snowmen. Even in the best of times, autumn is a stressful season. We may welcome the cooling weather, but it heralds dangerous ice and snow just around the corner. We may love the longer nights, but we don’t love what is shrouded in the darkness. We usually start to feel the effects of decreased sunlight and fresh air in the form of colds, flus and other seasonal dis-ease. We say goodbye to the vibrancy of summer with a bit of misgiving. Being surrounded by all this death reminds us that we, too, are ephemeral. And these days, we are increasingly coping with actual scarcity at the end of the growing season.
We might blame COVID — and, indeed, COVID might have been the last straw — but these supply interruptions and shortened supply chains are a sign that capitalism is entering its normal and completely predictable end-game. Resources are becoming scarce and expensive to transport long distances, and those that remain are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This is exactly what has happened before, and we know what comes next.
So these autumns are a bit more stressful for us. Many of us have never had to prepare for winter scarcity. But our ancestors did, even as recently as a century ago. So I’m fairly certain we’ll rise to the occasion magnificently. And while we learn how to cope with that stress, we’ll do as our ancestors did and play silly games on Death’s threshold. Maybe She’ll get so annoyed with our antics that She’ll toss out a lighted turnip and beg us to go away and never return.
Here’s a game that has variations the world over. The one I’m familiar with is called Culling the Hare (which, as kids, we inevitably changed to Cutting the Hair). This is a team game. Traditionally, it’s boys against girls, but there’s no good rhyme or reason for that now, nor ever was to my mind. There is a home base — a table or big rock or something flat — that is guarded by one team. The other team goes out to cull the hare, that is cut down the last sheave of grain. The culling team has to bring the sheave home, but the guardians do all manner of things to thwart this — though they eventually relent. The game doesn’t end until they do.
The last standing sheave, called the hare or the cailleach (pronounced “cali” and therefore shifted in meaning in my Northern California childhood), is placed somewhere out of sight of home. In the version we played as kids, the hare was usually a small thing that could be knocked down, a doll or toy of some elongated sort — stuffed rabbits were ideal — but sometimes we managed to acquire corn or rice stalks tied in a bundle. Originally, the culling team was supposed to actually cut down a sheave of standing grain. I don’t know about this because the methods seem impossible and more than a bit prone to bloody disaster.
The culling team places the hare on the ground and surrounds it in a wide ring. Then they take turns trying to knock it down by tossing things at the hapless hare, all the while singing at the top of their lungs (or just making a good deal of noise). In adult versions, there is extra challenge in this task because every time it’s your turn, you must take a swig of ale or hard cider first. Once the jug has been passed a few times, the likelihood of intentionally hitting anything is rather dim. This is one reason I think that maybe nobody ever cut down grain in this game. The other is that cutting down grain by tossing sharp objects is unlikely even when alcohol is not involved — however, cutting the person on the opposite side of the ring when you toss the sharp object seems rather too likely. In any case, our kid version didn’t involve sharp objects or alcohol. Most often we used bean bags.
While the culling team is out doing its thing, the home team is busy setting traps. It is essential that none of the trap-setting starts until the culling team goes away, so creating the obstacle course is a race against the time it takes for the culling team to cull. You are allowed to gather and bring along whatever materials you like, but you can’t put them out — or build them — until the game begins. You also don’t know what team you’re going to be on until just before the game starts, so those on the culling team often provide the tools of their own abuse. These tools include shaving cream, cooked pasta, ketchup, lots of string, rubber balls, water balloons, toilet paper, wading pools and plastic tarps filled with mud, squirt guns, tomatoes, various smelly liquids, and water. Lots of water. Home should be somewhere near an actual home so there is a hose, preferably more than one. The only limit is that the home team should avoid making traps that might actually injure someone. Though I’m sure there have been broken bones and blood loss because of this game.
When someone on the culling team has managed to knock down the hare, they gather it up and head back toward home. The game ends when the hare is placed on whatever table or rock is designated as home. The guardian team surrounds this home base and hopes the traps slow down the cullers. When the hare is small, there is usually a fair degree of tossing it between cullers like a rugby ball. Sometimes the guardians manage to intercept these passes and claim the hare as their own. But this doesn’t happen too often because the guardians usually have their hands physically full with all the stuff they’re tossing at the cullers. The true goal is drenching everyone and coating most folks in gunk before the hare makes it to the table. Usually the garden hose is wielded by someone standing on top of the home base, so there is no possibility of approaching home without getting soaked.
I’m not sure how you win this game, which is sort of its appeal. I remember playing milder versions of it at school fall festivals and in Girl Scouts. There were never winners or losers, only degrees of mess. When we “organized” block games in my neighborhood, we all were winners because after the game we went to someone’s house for food. Outdoors, of course, because no mother would let us in the house until we weren’t dripping.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021