Harvest workers with a Hofherr-Schrantz-Clayton-Shuttleworth threshing machine and its steam machine in 1910. #8992 Photo: Fortepan

Our Daily Bread

The Swift Politicization of Harvest Festivals in Hungary

“If you’re with us, you’ll eat this!” This slogan along with the picture of a loaf of bread on its banner summarized succinctly the political program of the Hungarian Smallholders’ Party after the war. They were not the only political party trying to outdo the others in making clever use of the traditional festive day on the August 20 known as the “Festival of the New Bread.” Even though it was Communist propaganda that eventually “hijacked” and transformed its meaning, the New Bread celebration was not invented by the Communists, and the idea of taking political advantage of this festive day had antecedents in the Christian and conservative political tradition. Communist ideologues tried to appropriate and make good use of such symbols of Christian origin as wheat, sowing, and harvesting, and bread, life, and abundance. A photo of the Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi gently crumbling a head of wheat was as ingrained in Hungarian political iconography and collective memory as the passages of poetry mastered by tired schoolchildren longing to be anywhere else during the last class of the day.

Harvesting was a popular theme in amateur, press, and genre photography as well as in literature throughout the 20th century. “Harvesting has become a cliché of school reading books as the greatest effort of the Hungarian peasant, when life is concentrated and centered around/in work, each and every nerve in the body is in tension from work fever, each and every muscle gives out all its power, and the air and field is hot and humid from the sweat and ‘steam’ of work,” – wrote Aladár Schöpflin in his review of Zsigmond Móricz’s novel Sárarany in the literary journal Nyugat. Indeed, in Móricz’s novel the air was filled with the sweetness of the thyme growing among the wheat and the sweetness of the harvesting songs, and the harvesters whooping merrily at the sight of wild geese, even though their master, the young and ambitious landowner, Dani Turi did not stop at whooping when it came to the harvesters’ wives…
Writer Zsigmond Móricz in around 1941 . #101197 Photo: Fortepan / Anita Zsivkov – Árpád Koós / Photographs by András Koós
Móricz did not shy away from a little forgery regarding his birth date in order to be able to say that he was born on the feast of Peter and Paul, the first day of harvest, and that as a peasant writer, he was at the peak of his writing during the days of summer work. Though he was clearly forging his own legend as a writer with such statements as well as using facts liberally in order to support his personal mythology, the harvest was indeed a natural, default theme of “rural” writers and landscape painters. Those artists who had some sociographical insight into the actual rural reality were more likely to resist the fake romanticism. The writer Gyula Illyés, for instance, demanded “a new objectivity” in his diary “instead of the fake scenery adorned with tulips and geraniums,” also for treating such themes as agricultural work.
Tableau in traditional costume in Aranyosmarót (today, Zlaté Moravce, Slovakia) in the Felvidék region, in around 1890. #96139 Photo: Fortepan / Géza Buzinkay
“The Hungarian summer is not a festival, not a rural bachannal, not even a festivity. I have never heard any harvester sing—only in sound films,” wrote Illyés, who found the harvest a hard day’s work lasting two months and the most demanding physical work nature has bestowed upon man. “Bending up and down from 2am in the morning till 9pm in the evening with only one or two hours of rest, reaping bundles of grains of 5–6 kilograms with a single move, then lifting and tying them into sheaves of 10–12 kilograms, in the summer heat, in the dust, and in the stubble that stings like a fakir’s bed… no, these are not gaieties,” wrote Illyés, the author of Puszták Népe (People of the Puszta, trans. G.F. Cushing [Budapest: Corvina, 1967]).
Crop harvest by hand; the crop is collected by hand by a lady (the marokeszedő), around 1930. #26450 Photo: Fortepan / László Nagy
Around the middle of the 1930s. #19200 Photo: Fortepan / Rothman family
Around 1930. #8944 Photo: Fortepan
“Have you ever taken a close look at the face of a harvest worker?” Illyés asks rhetorically, while musing about the fact in spite of all the above, in his view, these seasonal farm workers called sommások in Hungarian barely making 70 Pengő-worth of wheat througout a good summer, work after all happily. “They are happy for having the chance to do the harvest and not those who are even poorer than they, and especially, not the threshing machines that could do it just as well.”
Automation indeed created serious competition for harvest workers. “Dear Sir., dear machinist, I’m asking you this/Please don’t feed too much to the machine,” the harvest workers sang. Such lesser known harvesting songs attest to the fact that these songs were not only about love and happiness as the ones that are most commonly known…
A threshing machine puled by an ox cart, around 1940. #134681 Photo: Fortepan / Album018
A Hofherr-Schrantz-Clayton-Shuttleworth threshing machine and the additional steam machine, around 1933. #19239 Photo: Fortepan
“Your honor, dear steward, for Christ’s sake!
Don’t give any more beans to the seasonal worker.
You yourself can eat it or give it to your dog.
But don’t ever give it to the seasonal worker.”
In other songs sung by the harvest workers, other types of modest suggestions appeared, not only regarding food reforms…
“There is a tree next to the steward’s house,
That’s where the steward should be hung,
I’ll be there too at his hanging
I’ll put the rope on his neck.”
Forced laborers with a threshing machine in the so-called white summer uniforms of the Hungarian Defence Forces that were never in official use, around 1940. #134657 Photo: Fortepan / Album018
1964. #65066 Photo: Fortepan / Magyar Rendőr magazine
A modern, politicized form of the festival of the new bread was actually a reaction to this tension and to the movement of the agrarian proletariat that was threatening the political order. These celebrations were supposed to reduce social tension and unrest. A year after harvest strikes had been banned by the 1989 “serfdom law”, the minister of agriculture, Ignác Darányi suggested renewing the tradition of harvest festivals in order to consolidate and reinstate “the patriarchal good terms” between landlords and peasants.
Sharpening and peening a scythe, 1949. #33230 Photo: Fortepan / Márton Ernő Kovács
1942. #149380 Photo: Fortepan / Árpád Tóth

According to the ethnographer Ákos Kovács, it was more a newly invented tradition than the renewal of an old one. The blessing of bread in church was indeed a long-held tradition related to the day of the Dispersion of the Apostles (July 15), and the priest would traditionally bless harvest workers and their tools leaning against the wall of the church on the day of Visitation (July 2), which in Hungary is called the day of the Blessed Lady of the Sickle (and thus the cult of the Virgin is involved with the start of the harvest, as the sickle was usually used by women.) Actual harvest festivals took place only in a few places, usually where harvest workers were hired. Some folk traditions related to harvest included a symbolic act at the end of the work, in which the landlord would be “tied” by the peasants with a rope of straw and would have to pay ransom in order to be set free: some wine, pálinka, or money. After this, the peasants would give him a wreath of grain as a final gift accompanied by a song, such as this one from Csilinyárad:


“To our landlord, we report with due respect

Today at noon we finished the grain harvest

We pray to God all the wheat kernels are large

So, from the white flour, you can bake real soft sweet bread and good loaves of bread.”

However, around 1900, the motivation behind the estate stewards’ and different types of associations’ diligence in spreading the tradition of harvest festivals was more than a noble act of honoring old traditions; the hidden agenda was to calm political tension. In the 1930s, the so-called Gyöngyösbokréta movement was in charge of the “Celebration of the Hungarian Bread” and of renewing old folk traditions, often lacking scientific rigor. Newsreels from the period show processions, with people holding wreaths, taking gifts to their landlords, and, in the name of social harmony, drinking a toast together before breaking a loaf of new bread. The subtitle reads: “The Almighty has rewarded the people of the village for their work throughout the year: The daily bread has been given.”

View from the road between Vác and Vácduka, in the direction of the Máriaudvar area, 1943. #72327 Photo: Fortepan / Tivadar Lissák
The harvest workers of the Galgamente Cooperative on a lunch break near Tura, in the early 1970s. #87370 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
During World War II, after the so-called recovery of the Southern territories (three Yugoslav regions formerly under Hungarian rule), governor general Miklós Horthy received in Szabadka (today, Subotica, in Serbia) the symbolic loaf of new bread on August 20, as a new landlord — the character of the symbolic act had clearly shifted from religious to political by that point. After 1945, the Communists basically followed in his footsteps in this regard; the only difference was that the peasants had to offer the bread to new representatives of power: to the Party, to the president of the soviet council, or to the working class. The Communist Party clearly stated and emphasized to the members of rural party organs that the main goal of these ceremonies was to convince locals of “the validity of the Party’s politics and of voting for our Party at the elections.” As a matter of fact, as one of the supervising experts pragmatically commented in his report on one of the “sample” harvest festivals, “One of the key requisites to the success of the planned event is the swift and secure allocation of the promised 1000 liters of wine.”
After the Communist takeover, King St. Stephen turned into a “state-founding revolutionary” and keeping up with five-year plans became a patriotic duty. And from 1950 on, the celebration of the new bread was eclipsed by the celebration of the Stalinist constitution, also set for August 20. The New Bread acquired another level of meaning anyway in the times of “clean sweeps of barns”, and even the celebratory speeches were about the imposed surrender of products and crops. August 20 was the date of “the delivery of the obligatory surrender of produce and crops, the first due date for the delivery of patriotic duty, and the day of the reckoning of the delivery of patriotic duty,” as Imre Nagy, at the time serving as a minister in charge of collectivization, expressed it in his ceremonial speech in 1951.
Surrender of crops at the warehouse of the agrarian coorpeative of Hódmezővásárhely in around 1950. #128511 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer
Propaganda activity for the cooperatives during the surrender of crops in Szabadszállás, in 1949. #33578 Photo: Fortepan / Márton Ernő Kovács
The grandstand of the May Day of 1947 at Hősök tere, Budapest, with the Kunsthalle (Műcsarnok) in the background. #78679 Photo: Fortepan / Pál Berkó
Communist propaganda was especially wary of the “sabotage” of the kulaks during harvest. Local farmers were sentenced to death in show trials, accused of deliberately setting the sheaves of the agricultural cooperatives on fire. “Due to the class war getting harsher and harsher each day, we must be wary of the growing resistance of hostile elements in agriculture as well, especially, kulaks. They take every opportunity to disrupt the successful process of crop harvesting and threshing and to cause serious damage to our agricultural workers and to the people’s collective economy,” read one of the articles of the propaganda press in its usual tone in the early 1950s. While in Dunaújváros, at the time renamed after Stalin as Sztálinváros, harvest workers had to sing soviet-style “chastushkas,” such as, “We can proudly say, we did our job well, we delivered what we were expected, we are bringing the wreath of the Constitution coop, here we are, offering it to the Party and the Council,” the old harvest song of the poor peasants remained ever more relevant after the forced collectivization of agriculture:
“Oh how I’d like to shout it out
So that anyone can hear,
Those who don’t work on the field,
only under the table should they eat.”

Text: Ádám Kolozsi | Photo edtior: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]

The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/en/harvesting

If you have a family photo to share with Fortepan, please write us at fortepan@gmail.com

This article is distributed under the Creative Commons Atrribution-No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) license which means that it may be freely copied and redistributed with attribution, but cannot be adapted (see the blog’s impressum for details.) A full-size version of all photos featured in this article can be downloaded here.

Notes and comments are welcome at the following email address: hetifortepan@capacenter.hu.