Thursday, August 1, 2013

Today, August 1st, is Lammas, the "First Harvest," by Melinda

In older Europe and North America, temperatures were colder on average than they are today, and August 1st was the traditional day for harvesting "first fruits," including grains.  Lammas (according to a lunar calendar) marked the end of summer, though it may not feel like that nowadays! It may have originated in an earlier Celtic holiday called Lughnasadh, an agriculture-based fertility rite commemorating the seasonal passing of the god of light, Lugh (equivalent to Dionysos in ancient Greece or Apollo in Rome). Lammas celebrated the first harvest, as it was vital to a community to put away enough food, as the day-lengths shortened, to tide them over the winter.
First Harvest Fruits (source)

By mediaeval times, Lammas had been incorporated into the calendar of Christian church holidays. It also has affiliations with the Jewish harvest holiday, Sukkot, though the dates of Sukkot vary from year to year in the Jewish calendar.

In the Christian church, Lammas is translated as "Loaf Mass"; it was celebrated with loaves of bread made from the first harvested grains. These special loaves of bread were taken to the local church and placed on the altar for blessing and as thanks for a good harvest. Indeed, Lughnasadh or Lammas is celebrated even today in some churches interested in Celtic spirituality, like All Saints Brookline, an Episcopal church near Boston (click here for their excellent history of the holiday). Indeed, as they note, in Ireland, Lammas was the traditional day for harvesting the first potatoes, so consider our Blue potatoes a tribute to Lammas!
Celtic Lammas emblem, All Saints Brookline

Popularly, Lammas was a time for feasting and games, with artists, Morris dancers, and town fairs. It also was celebrated by the creation of "corn dollies" ("corn" was the word used for what today would be wheat, barley, or rye). They were based on the popular belief that the spirit of the grain could shelter in the corn dolly over the winter, and then be plowed back into the ground in the spring to ensure another good harvest.
Corn Dollies of various sorts
(British tea towel I own)
The final Lammas tradition was making barley beer, as in the British folksong "John Barleycorn," about the suffering and death of the grain as it was processed, only to be revivified in a new form in the Lammas ale. For a version of "John Barleycorn Must Die" by the group Steeleye Span, click here.
Lammas Ale, Vancouver (source)

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