No matter what you call it, the first harvest festival of the year is nearly upon us. While not always the best loved of the sabbats, it’s still a fine holiday with many ways to celebrate. What follows below are some of my favorite and most tried-and-true ways of paying homage to the Wheel of the Year in late July/early August. May the First Fruits of the harvest be a joyful time for you and yours.
(Many Pagans call this sabbat Lughnassa, or a variation of that word-Lugnasa/Lughnasa/Lughnasadh-and Lughnassa was most certainly an Irish-Celtic holiday much like Samhain or Beltane. Lammas is the Christian name of a similar festival that occurred at the same time of year. Lammas may have also been an ancient pagan holiday celebrated by the Anglo-Saxons, or not. I don’t think it matters what you call it.)
For me there is no better way to celebrate this time of year than by baking bread. The original Lammas celebration was tied directly to the first grains of the harvest with Lammas essentially translating as “Loaf Mass.” Though Lammas essentially became a Christian holiday, the people who were celebrating it seven hundred years ago did so in a very agrarian, pagan sort of way so don’t let that bother you. (And besides, Lammas may have been an Anglo-Saxon holiday before it was a Christian one, or perhaps an Anglo-Saxon appropriation of the Irish-Celtic Lughnassa.)
When we think of baking bread we often think of stoves and indoor baking, but the best bread this time of year is Bannock Bread, which can be easily baked in a campfire. If you are celebrating with friends Bannock Bread can even be roasted on a stick and cooked like a campfire marshmallow! It’s also super-easy to make and only requires a handful of ingredients.
From now until Samhain is also the season of John Barleycorn, who I often think of as John Barleybeer. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s it was popular to think of John Barleycorn as an ancient pagan tune, and the song as the story of the sacrificial god of the harvest. While the song isn’t quite that old (the first written version of it appeared in 1568) and is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than a lamentation on a dying deity, it still strongly resonates in Modern Pagan circles.
I’ve seen lots of rituals over the years built around the song, and even if that’s not where you want to go simply using a little beer for the ceremony of cakes and ale is an appropriate homage. Don’t like beer? I’m personally allergic to something in it, but Scotch Whisky also uses barley as a primary ingredient, and Scotch is sometimes known as the “water of life.”
The first grains of the harvest were once used as a form of protection. Families would rise at dawn on Lammas and gather the first ripe corn they found in their fields. After returning home they would grind the grain, boil it in a sheep’s stomach, and then bake it. The baked bread was then scattered around the house as a deterrent against evil forces.
While this was essentially a Christian tradition, British Christians of the late Middle Ages often practiced their religious rites in much the same way as their pagan ancestors. Besides, this could be one of those traditions that predates the Christianization of the British Isles, and we can also use a little extra protection now and again!
My backyard garden is starting to
beer bear fruit, which means harvest season is truly upon us. It’s easy enough to simply go out into a backyard garden and pluck a cherry tomato off the vine, but it’s far more satisfying to turn that first harvest into a real ceremony.
Don’t have a garden? Nothing to worry about, a trip to your local Farmer’s Market will also suffice here. And don’t worry, nearly every community has a thriving Farmer’s Market this type of year, just do some digging (garden pun!) and I bet you find one near by.
Visit the County Fair
This is a little trickier than everything else on this list, and will depend on your local community, but in the Middle Ages Lammas was associated with more than just bread. It was a time for fairs, the payment of rents, elections, and the opening of public lands. So visiting a local county fair or even a craft and art event truly harkens to the spirit of long-ago Lammas celebrations.
It’s easy to forget too that the sabbats are more than just a date, in many ways they are a season. If there’s something you can visit in the middle of August I think that still counts as a bit of a Lammas celebration. When I was growing up in Tennessee our county fair was at the end of August just before school started, but when I look back on it now with its agricultural competitions and coming together of community it reminds me of Lammas.
Take a Walk
Sometimes the most satisfying way to celebrate the turning of the Wheel is the simplest, and there are few things more simple (and more pleasurable!) than an evening stroll. Walking often sounds like a passive activity but it doesn’t have to be, especially this time of year. While you’re out truly look at the world around you. What’s blooming? What’s dead? What exactly is making you sneeze? Is the breeze warm or cool?
The hills around me are dead, their grasses a burnt light brown, but many of the trees in my neighborhood are flowering, and there’s citrus fruit on many of them. Here in Northern California we’ve had an unseasonably warm Summer after a wetter-than-normal Spring. Observing how the land around me has reacted to these two extremes had drawn me closer to it.
One of my most cherished Lughnassa memories involves me and three friends in a small clearing between fields and fields of corn (maize). We didn’t do a proper ritual that night, but we did march into those rows of corn to pick a few heads off of them to make our own corn dollies. It was all a spur of the moment thing so we didn’t make very good corn dollies, but that doesn’t really matter. Making those dollies simply felt good, and put us in touch with the Wheel of the Year.
While I used American-corn any type of grain makes for a good corn dolly. Wheat is probably the most traditional since the tradition started in the United Kingdom. And you don’t have to visit a corn field at night to do this either. It’s a craft that can be done with corn from the grocery store and around the kitchen table with the kids or in the circle with the coven.
The Celtic god Lugh was known as a god of “many skills” and the historian Ronald Hutton has categorized him the “the patron of all human skills” which means he can be celebrated in all sorts of different ways. As a warrior deity athletic contests are a suitable way to show him some respect, but because he has such a varied skill-set just about anything we do this time of year might be seen as a way to celebrate Lugh.
Lugh has often been connected to the sun due to his name commonly being translated as “bright” or “shining” beginning in the 19th Century (today there are a couple of other interpretations). That makes him a good god to invoke when thanking the sun for the first harvest. Even if you don’t build your Lughnassa ritual around Lugh, you might still want to share one of his stories or at least thank him for lending his name to your celebration.