The Old Ways: Lammas
Lammas, the festival of the First Fruits of the Harvest, is the first festival of the Waning Year. It is celebrated on July 31, while the climate (in the United States) is essentially still Summer. Never-the-less, technically, Lammas is the first day of Autumn.
If anything, the days are hotter now than they were in early Summer. These are the best days for trips to the beach and back yard barbecues. Meat prices are lower now, especially beef. This is the time to enjoy a thick steak. The really good sweet corn, the kind that melts in your mouth, has just begun to arrive in the supermarket. Since the seasonal changes at this time are more subtle, it is even more important that we celebrate the festival. We need to bring the cycles of the Universe into manifestation within our own minds, by demonstrating what we may not see.
The mental/emotional indications of the changing seasons are more obvious now than the physical ones. The air is filled with anticipation of the coming fall, of the approaching return to school and of the cooler weather to come. It is also a time of sadness, as the knowledge sets in that the good times of Summer will soon be over. There is a bit of "haste to have fun" before it comes to an end.
Lammas takes its name from the Old English "hlaf," meaning "loaf" and "maesse," meaning feast. Lammas has often been taken to mean Lamb-mass, because on August 1, the next day, is the Feast of St. Peter's Chains, at which lambs are taken to church for blessing. (Can't you just picture a priest of the early Church saying, "Lammas? We can do that HERE! Just tell them to bring their lambs to Church!)
This festival is also called "Lugnasadh" (Loo-nah-sah), which has an entirely different meaning. The element "nasadh" relates to the Gaelic, "to give in marriage," and so would mean the "Marriage of Lug," rather than Lugh's Mass, which is a common interpretation. There is also some debate as to who the bride is, if there is one. Some authorities favor Tailltiu (Lugh's foster mother) and others favor Eriu, i.e., Ireland, herself.
However, no mention is made of Blodeuwedd, the Lady of Flowers created for Lugh by Math and Gwydeon, the ultimate cause of his death. One clue to the identity of this particular bride may be that "handfastings" (marriage for a year and a day) are still called "Taillten Marriage", and many are performed at Lammas Fairs.
Although we do not celebrate a marriage at this time, preferring the loaf-feast concept, it is interesting to note that July 31 is exactly nine months prior to Beltane, which was once celebrated as the beginning of the New Year.
Another common interpretation of "Lughnasadh", perpetuated by Christian historians, is "Lugh's Games" and some say it is a festival created by Lugh, in honor of the memory of Tailltiu.
The Lammas festival was adopted by the Christian Church in 1843, and today, in England, people decorate churches with sheaves and corn dollies, celebrating the old Pagan holiday, as they sing "Bringing in the Sheaves" and make offerings of corn to the Church.
In some areas, Lammas was a time of sacrifice. Sacrifices at Lammas were made to thank the Deities for the First Fruits and to guarantee an abundant Harvest. The victim was often the king, who was God Incarnate to his people. Sometimes a substitute king, a fool or "scapegoat", was sacrificed in the king's stead.
The last recorded sacrifice of a king of England may have occurred at Lammas, in the year 1100. King William II (Rufus the Red, or William Rufus) rejected the relatively new Christian beliefs, and openly declared himself Pagan. His death in a "hunting accident" on August 2, 1100 c.e., is believed by many historians to have been a case of the traditional sacrifice being disguised for the sake of the Christian priests.
Until recent years, in Scotland, the first cut of the Harvest was made on Lammas Day, and was a ritual in itself. The entire family must dress in their finest clothing and go into the fields. The head of the family would lay his bonnet (hat) on the ground and, facing the Sun, cut the first handful of corn with a sickle. He would then put the corn Sun-wise around his head three times while thanking the God of the Harvest for "corn and bread, food and flocks, wool and clothing, health and strength, and peace and plenty." This custom was called the "Iolach Buana."
In the British Isles, the custom of giving the First Fruits to the Gods evolved into giving them to the landlord. Lammas is now the traditional time for tenant farmers to pay their rent. Thus, Lammas is seen as a day of judgment or reckoning. From this practice comes the phrase "--at latter Lammas", meaning "never", or "not until Judgment Day."
An old custom that can be re-created today is the construction of the Kern-baby or corn maiden at Lammas. This figure, originally made from the first sheaf, would be saved until spring, then ploughed into the field to prepare for planting. (The Maiden thus returns to the field at Spring.) Most of us, today, have no first sheaf nor shall we prepare a field at Spring, but as a means of adding continuity to our festivals, the maiden can be made from the husks of corn served at the Lammas Feast, then saved for use as a brideo'g at Candlemas.
To the Celts, Lammas was, of course, one of the four Great Fire Festivals, i.e., cross-quarter festivals. The custom of lighting bonfires to add strength to the powers of the Waning Sun was wide-spread. Brands from the Lammas fires were kept in the home, through the Winter, as protection against storms and lightning, and against fires started by lightning. The Need-Fire seems to have been an integral part of most Fire Festivals, but was not limited to them. Since the ashes from such a fire had properties of protection, healing, and fertility, a Need-Fire might be lit at any time a "need" for such things existed.
Lammas Fairs, held annually throughout the British Isles, still exist today. At the Exeter Lammas Fair, a large, stuffed glove, decorated with flowers and ribbons, is fasted atop a pole and carried about the fairgrounds. It is then placed on the roof of the Guild Hall to signify the opening of the fair. A gift of money for gloves (to servants) was also traditional at Lammastide. One source tells us the glove represents a unit of measure, indicating a fair rate of exchange. Another compares it to the Egyptian "open hand," representing friendship and fortune.
We would like to add what seems an obvious theory, but for which we have no source: The name Lugh-Lamhfhada means "Lugh of the Long Hand," and Llew-Law Gyffes, another name for the same God (Welsh), means "The Lion with the Steady Hand." It seems to us that the glove might simply be a symbol for Lugh, with whom the festival has often been associated (as in Lughnasadh).
That Lammas, traditionally, is a merry time, a time of Fairs, Handfastings, and Feasts is expressed in the following poem by Robert Burns.
Lammas is often celebrated as the Wake for the Sacred King. As you know, a Wake is a Celebration of Life, not a time to grieve. And Lammas is a joyous time of celebration. Feast to your heart's content, sing, dance and make merry. Light your Need-Fires and make your Kern-babies. You'll "ne'er forget that happy night" you celebrated in The Old Ways! Blessed Be!!!