Summary: a festival in the Northern Hemisphere to mark the start of the harvest
2018 Date: 1st August or thereabouts
Celebrated by: European, Christians, Pagans
Linked Holidays: Harvest Festival, Wiccan Wheel of the Year festivals
Background and Theological Significance
Lammas is the name given in English-speaking parts of the Northern Hemisphere to the annual celebration that marks the start of the harvest. In earlier times, the cycle of the agricultural year was central to everyday life and a prosperous harvest was vital to surviving through the barren months of winter. The harvest season usually covers several months due to different crops ripening at different times. The festival of Lammas celebrated the wheat harvest, which was the first harvest of the year, and this was celebrated in early August, about halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Although it is of pagan origin, it was widely celebrated throughout Christian Europe, and was centered around bringing the first fruits of the harvest to church in order to give thanks to God for the yield. The name ‘Lammas’ probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaf-mas’ meaning loaf-mass, which refers to one of the principle customs of the celebration. A loaf of bread would be baked from the new crop of the first harvest and brought to church to receive a blessing. The Lammas-bread would then be broken into four pieces and placed at the four corners of a barn to ensure protection for all the gathered grain of the year’s harvest. The festival has declined in popularity in the last century due to the lessening importance of the agricultural year to everyday life, but many customs associated with Lammas are still celebrated in various communities around Europe.
Another festival that intertwines with Lammas is ‘Lughnasadh’, which is the name given in Gaelic cultures to the celebration of the first harvest. Lughnasadh is recorded in early Irish literature and was an important pagan festival before the rise of Christianity. Modern pagans, including followers of the Wicca and Celtic Reconstructionist traditions, have reclaimed Lughnasadh as an important harvest festival and a time to celebrate the ongoing cycle of the natural world.
Festivals to mark the harvest are common to many different cultures around the world. Although Lammas is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, its customs and traditions are likely far older. In Gaelic cultures such as Ireland and Scotland, the celebration of the first harvest was traditionally known as Lughnasadh. This derives its name from the Celtic god Lugh, to whose honour the festival was originally dedicated. As well as celebrating the first harvest it was also a time for merrymaking, feasting, and handfasting (marriages). As Gaelic cultures became Christianised, the associations with Lugh gradually dwindled, although many of the customs continued in much the same manner. Gaelic countries celebrated Lughnasadh well into the twentieth-century, and even today pilgrimages and fairs named after the festival are still popular.
Although Lammas is an Anglicised and Christianised name, it likely shares the same history as the festival of Lughnasadh. During the Middle Ages in England, as well as being a time to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest, Lammas marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun at Midsummer. Lammastide was also the time when tenant farmers were bound to present part of their freshly harvested wheat to their liege lords. It should not be confused with the English tradition of the Harvest Festival, which is typically held in September on the Sunday of the harvest moon (the full moon nearest the autumn equinox). The Harvest Festival celebrates the completion of the harvest, whereas Lammas celebrates the beginning.
Modern pagan groups such as the Wicca and the Celtic Reconstructionist movements have reclaimed Lammas or Lughnasadh as part of their annual calendar. Celtic Reconstructionists, who believe in recreating the pre-Christian religion of the Celts as closely as possible, celebrate Lughnasadh according to accurate historical accounts of the festival. Wicca practitioners, however, feel more comfortable mixing the traditions of Lughnasadh with those of Lammas and similar harvest festivals from across Europe. They include it in the Wheel of the Year cycle of holy days, alongside Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain, as well as the solstices and equinoxes. Together these festivals give liturgical expression to the ebb and flow of the year and the natural world.
The principle Lammas custom during the Middle Ages was making special loaves of bread out of the freshly harvested crop. This custom continues to this day, and it is common in many areas to celebrate Lammas by baking a loaf of bread in the shape of an animal of a sheaf of corn. Other traditions include making figures out of straw known as ‘corn dollies’ or by joining with family and friends for a meal and good company. Modern pagans have an additional theological aspect to their celebrations, either by honouring the god Lugh or by celebrating the divine in the cycle of the agricultural year. Lammas or Lughnasadh is a time to remember that human life is part of, not separate from, the natural world, and to give thanks for the agricultural prosperity that sustains our common life every year.
‘Wheat harvest on field‘ is in the Public Domain