Monthly Archives: July 2017

Ho, John Barleycorn!

July is ending, August beginning. And with this last night of July, the wheel of the year shifts another cog and we enter, by traditional reckoning of time, autumn. The shift can be thought of as gradual, as it is. Summer’s heat will persist for many more weeks, especially here in Lake Worth. But the change is undeniable: days have been steadily growing shorter since the June solstice, and here, at this juncture, July shifting into August, we find ourselves nearing the halfway point between that solstice of Midsummer and the upcoming autumnal equinox in September.

This cross-quarter day on the First of August is known as Lammas (or Lughnasadh (LOO-na-sa) in the Celtic tradition). It is perhaps the least celebrated of the old cross-quarter celebrations, and that is too bad. It is the first of the harvest festivals, and on this day it is traditional to enjoy the things of that harvest: to bake bread and to partake of the more spirited things that emerge from the grain that gives us bread: a bit of ale or whisky. The name John Barleycorn is one you may hear these Lammastide days. It comes from many an old song praising the personification of ale and whisky. Some are sad and some are jolly, but all understand that John Barleycorn must die in order to be born again in the form of bread and alcohol. (Well, to be honest, the folks singing these songs weren’t much concerned about the bread. They are old drinking songs, after all.) John Barleycorn is that sacrificial first harvest.

William Shakespeare understood this well, perhaps because Lammas was a widely celebrated holiday in his time, and in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, we learn, was born at Lammastide, on the 31st of July. “On Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen,” says her nursemaid in the first act of the play. The action all takes place in these last few days of July, and poor Juliet never makes it to that birthday; she, too, is like a sacrificial first harvest.

Lammastide marks for us the subtle transition of summer to autumn, and this is the value of Lammas. A holiday certainly of our agrarian past, but so useful for us today. A gentle coaxing, an acknowledgment of our days growing shorter and darker, and a hint of bounties to come. If you can bake a loaf of bread in the next day or two, wonderful: do so, and take delight in that. A crusty loaf from your local baker would do just as fine. And if you can pour a little something tonight, which is Lammas Eve, or tomorrow on Lammas itself, a little bit o’ the spirit of John B., you’d do well to raise your glass and toast Mr. Barleycorn and drink to the health of those you know and love.

Give me my native nut brown ale,
all other drinks I scorn,
For English cheer is English beer,
our own John Barleycorn!

Photo: Mark Fuller (center) and George Wickens (right) enjoy a pint at the Tiger Inn, Sussex, with a Canadian soldier on leave in the village. 1943 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Were there some drinking songs sung that night, perhaps to John Barleycorn? I don’t know. But I hope so.


Rare and Beautiful

If you like oysters, I’ve got a holiday for you: The 25th of July brings St. James’s Day, and oysters are the traditional meal. Me, I am not an oyster fan, and so I will pass on the oysters tonight, even though legend has it that those who eat oysters for St. James’s Day will never want for money for the rest of the year. I’ll just take my chances, thank you. In Galicia in Spain, where St. James is the patron saint, the evening meal might include scallops, too.

In England, St. James’s Day was in the past a day when apples were blessed by the parish priest, and this interests me more, for I love apples. I am my father’s son, after all, and he, too, was an avid apple eater. The apples on the trees, I imagine, are still quite green, even now as we inch our way toward autumn. And this is happening, of course, even as we melt daily through summer. Autumn is on the horizon.

Back when we were kids, it was always right about now, as July began to give way to August, that an annual warm weather melancholy would set in. School for us here in ended in late May, and there was still a bit of shock to May and the sudden end of school. It didn’t feel much more exciting than a long weekend. June was different: it was all ours. We were free and the days were long. There was the beach and then after there were TV shows and riding bikes with the other neighborhood kids. There were books, too––paperbacks that you could slip into your back pocket; one summer I read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Most of all, there was no homework. When I was really young, when we lived in New York, we could stay up late and we could sleep late, although we never did, because Mom had us at the beach before 8, before the gates opened for the day and before the admission charge went into effect. I watched for dune buggies on the drive to the beach and then I’d eat my breakfast there once we arrived. Usually it was Cheerios in milk in a wide mouth Thermos. And coffee, even for us kids. The coffee, too, would come out of a Thermos, and there is nothing quite like coffee on the beach, early in the morning, with the scent of Bain de Soleil lingering in the salty air.

But it was right about this time, the end of July, that the realization crept in that summer was quickly fading. I know Northern schools start up after Labor Day, but here in South Florida, Labor Day was a school holiday. We’d be back at school by late August. August, we knew, was not ours. It was the month, already, of school supplies and homework and early rising of a not-so-good sort. Early July was as fine as June, but late July was the harbinger of August. By St. James’s Day, we understood that summer was almost done. Our ancestors had a grasp of this, too, for we are coming up soon on another of their major festivals: Lammas, which begins with the evening of July 31, is the first of the harvest festivals. It celebrates bread and John Barleycorn… and it brings with it the subtle transition toward autumn. For with Lammas, we’ll find ourselves midway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox. The wheel of the year shifts again.

But Lammas is days away, and today, it is the Feast of St. James. The oysters for St. James’s Day and the never wanting for money remind me of the story of a couple, right here in Downtown Lake Worth, who were sharing a platter of steamed clams at Dave’s Last Resort & Raw Bar. It was just about Christmas time, some ten years ago, and in one of the clams on their platter, they found a purple pearl. Rare and beautiful… and worth thousands of dollars. Some folks don’t believe half my Lake Worth stories (and I’m not sure I do, either), but this one’s documented as fact. I don’t know what became of them, or their purple pearl, but perhaps pearls, purple or not, were a more common find in clams and oysters in earlier days, making the legend of never wanting for money after eating your St. James’s Day oysters perhaps not so legendary at all. Perhaps it is the stuff of truth and just a matter of fact.


Image: Detail from “Pearl Oyster Fruits” by Anton Seder. Lithograph, 1890 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Wash the Pavements with Incessant Rain

And now this 15th of July comes St. Swithin’s Day. It is a traditional weather marker concerning rain, based on the old story of St. Swithin, the weeping saint. St. Swithin was a 9th century Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester. The source of the weeping comes from after his earthly life, for it was the good bishop’s wish to be buried in the churchyard and not in the chancel of the church, as was the custom for bishops. His wishes were followed when he died, but after his canonization, the monks decided the open churchyard was a rather disgraceful place for a saint to be buried, and so on the 15th of July in 971, they planned to move the relics of St. Swithin indoors to the choir, in a solemn procession. A great downpour began during the procession, though, and continued for forty days. The monks took this is a sign from St. Swithin himself, and so they let him be there in the churchyard, although they did eventually erect a chapel over his grave.

Now, the story goes, that “St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain; St. Swithin’s Day if thou be fair, For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.” There is, as well, an old saying that when it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, the saint is blessing the apples. Here are a few lines from Poor Robin’s Almanack, July 1697:

In this month is St Swithin’s Day;
On which, if that it rain, they say
Full forty days after it will,
Or more or less, some rain distill.
This Swithin was a Saint, I trow,
And Winchester’s Bishop also.
Who in his time did many a feat,
As Popish legends do repeat:
A woman having broke her eggs
By stumbling at another’s legs,
For which she made a wofull cry,
St Swithin chanc’d for to come by,
Who made them all as sound, or more
Than ever that they were before.
But whether this were so or no
‘Tis more than you or I do know:
Better it is to rise betime,
And to make hay while sun doth shine,
Than to believe in tales and lies
Which idle monks and friars devise.

Poor Robin was not a fan of the monks and friars (or the Catholics), to be sure, and obviously valued hard work more than a good story. One last mention of the legend: John Gay, in his poem “Trivia,” gives a few lines to our weeping saint:

How, if on Swithin’s Feast the welkin hours,
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain,
And wash the pavements with incessant rain.

In Britain, the land of Swithin, and here in Lake Worth, too, chances are good this time of year that if it indeed doth rain on St. Swithin’s Day then we will have forty days more of the same. Here it is our rainy season. It does not rain incessantly, but it is pretty consistent this time of year, and most of our summer days include at least a bit of water falling from the sky, typically in the form of early morning coastal showers or afternoon thunderstorms that build over the Everglades and rush toward the coast. We are well aware of our pal Swithin. Weep as you will, good bishop. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry every now and then.


Image: Hochbahnhof Bülowstraße bei Nacht by Ury. Oil on canvas, 1922 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.