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In the modern world, the first of August is not necessarily an important harvest date, and may seem quite early to some—after all, the summer is still in full swing! In fact, due to our advanced agricultural technology, there are now actually multiple growing cycles for various types of grain and other crops. But back when harvesting, threshing, winnowing and sieving of the grain was all done by hand, farmers needed to start as early as they could. After all, once this hard work was done, it would be time to bring in the later-season crops ahead of the first killing frosts.
Of course, August 1st wasn’t necessarily a hard and fast date for our ancestors, though it was considered the earliest acceptable time to begin bringing in the wheat. But if the crop wasn’t quite ready, due to insufficient rain or sunshine, then the harvest—and the accompanying festivities—would wait. Nature’s schedule was far more powerful than any calendar humans could devise.
Although the harvesting process meant long hours of hard work for the farmers, it was still cause for celebration and merriment. Many families’ stores of wheat would have run very low or even empty by this time, and the onset of the harvest season meant that plenty of new abundance was on its way.
It was also a very social time, as neighbors worked together in order to bring the harvest in successfully for everyone in the community. Feasting was a must, and a special emphasis was placed on bread, as a staple of nourishment that would provide for the family throughout the long winter months and beyond. The first loaves made from the first wheat of the new season were particularly significant, and in Anglo-Saxon England, these loaves were brought into the churches and laid on the altar to be blessed. This is where the holiday gets its name—the old Saxon phrase “hlaf-maesse,” which translates literally to “loaf mass,” and eventually became “Lammas.”
The custom of blessing the bread makes Lammas an interesting example of how Christianity and pagan religions coexisted for a time. Bread is actually an important symbol in many spiritual traditions, going back to the ancient world. For Wiccans and other modern Pagans, bread is representative of all the Elements: the seeds growing in the Earth, the yeast utilizing Water and Air to make the dough rise, and the Fire of the hearth making the finished product. Add to this the concept of Akasha—or Spirit—being present in the grain thanks to the power of the Sun, and you have a very sacred food indeed.
Given the significance of bread to the communion rituals of the Christian Church, it’s easy to see how these traditions overlapped. But if the Church officials had hoped to stomp out pagan practices with the “loaf mass,” they didn’t succeed, at least not immediately—the Anglo-Saxon peasants were known to use their church-blessed bread in protection rituals and other magic.
As an agricultural festival, the First Harvest would certainly have preceded the arrival of Christianity to Europe. And yet it’s unknown what this holiday was called in England prior to the custom that brought about the name of “Lammas.” However, in Ireland the day was, and still is, known as Lughnasa (pronounced “LOO-na-sa” or “Loo-NOSS-ah,” also spelled “Lughnasadh”).
This cross-quarter festival was held as a tribute to the Celtic God Lugh, a warrior deity who was associated with the Sun, fire, grain, and many skills and talents such as smithcraft, building, music and magic. The association with grain comes from Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, who was said to have cleared the plains of Ireland for use in agriculture and died of exhaustion from doing so.
Lugh held an annual harvest festival in her honor, which included athletic games and contests that resembled the original Olympics, along with music and storytelling. This mythical festival was made real by the ancient Celts and was celebrated in one form or another well into the 20th century.
As with other ancient harvest festivals, Lughnasa was a time to offer the “first fruits” to the gods. The first of the crops were carried to the top of a high hill and buried there. Bilberries were gathered and a sacred bull was sacrificed for the great feast.
Ritual plays were performed in which Lugh defeated blight or famine and seized the harvest for the people. Dancing, drinking, trading and matchmaking were popular activities at the gatherings, which might last for three days before coming to a close. Handfastings and trial marriages (which lasted a year and a day and could then be broken or made permanent) were also common, as were visits to holy wells, where people would pray for good health and leave offerings of coins or strips of cloth.