Category Archives: Lammas

Transition: Lammas

Well, hello! It’s been a while. I inadvertently took a small vacation from the Convivio Book of Days, which is maybe best attributed to summer laziness, and if you’re ok with that explanation, so am I. The equivalent of a “Gone Fishing” sign posted on the shop door. Summer does this to us. The peaches have been extraordinary this year, sweet and juicy, and the weather has been hot, which is as it should be, of course. But now comes August, which brings a bittersweet time of year. Especially if you are a kid, or someone who works in a school and has had the summer off… for August brings the understanding that summer is waning and not long from now it will be back to school and workaday schedules.

It’s different for everyone, of course. That was always the feeling that August brought to me when I was in school. Nowadays, though, I feel different about August. Probably because I do not have summers off, and––here’s the big thing––because I live in Florida. Summer came to settle in here sometime in May and now I know we are halfway through the constant heat and humidity. I just have to make it through August and September––the height of hurricane season––and then I know there will come a day in October when the weather will change and things will feel cooler, drier. August can bring on a bit of that punch drunk feeling that Florida summers bring, and if August doesn’t do it, September will. But still, we know that summer’s days are numbered.

Our ancestors knew this, too, and they celebrated this transition from July to August with a holiday little known today. It’s called Lammas. In the Celtic tradition, it’s called Lughnasadh (LOO-na-sa). Daylight in the Northern Hemisphere has been waning with each passing day since the solstice of June and this cross quarter day marks the midway point between the solstice and the approaching equinox. Lammas brings the first of the harvest festivals, and if the word “harvest” calls to mind autumn, that is not so bad, for our ancestors also considered Lammas just that: the transition toward autumn in the wheel of the year. In seven short weeks’ time, daylight and darkness will be balanced, and the days beyond will grow shorter and shorter still.

And so we enter Lammastide, tonight with Lammas Eve, tomorrow with Lammas proper. These days and nights are marked well by simple things made from the grains that are traditionally harvested at Lammas: a fresh baked crusty loaf and perhaps a pint of ale or a dram or two of whisky. Indeed, the name Lammas descends from the Old English hlafmaesse, or “loaf mass,” so the idea of loaves of bread celebrating the First of August goes back a very long time, to time immemorial. I see no harm in getting a loaf for the occasion from the local baker, rather than baking your own. Savor it, crumbs and all. And if you take a drink, then please raise your glasses to each other and to me, if you will, and to old John Barleycorn, the grain, personified. Summer is waning, autumn is coming, and we begin to turn our thoughts toward gathering in. John Barleycorn brings a bit of melancholy but a bit of warmth as well––warmth in his crusty bread, warmth in his spirits, warmth in the ones we gather with to celebrate. Happy Lammastide.

Image: On our recent travels through Europe, though it was July, I felt like Leonhardts Stall-Besen in Humbrechts, Germany, was looking ready for Lammas. The meal was amazing, and I’ve always had a thing for wooden Dutch doors.

 

Lammastide

The passing of July when I was a kid was always met with a bit of melancholy. The beach days were numbered. The afternoons playing Italian card games with Grandpa, games like Scopa and Briscola, were numbered, too. Once August rolls around, summer is much changed, for it comes with the knowledge that school is going to start soon.

Early on in our agrarian past we had a day to mark this change. It’s a day not much celebrated anymore, though it has value, for it marks the transition as summer begins to make its way toward autumn. It’s called Lammas in the English tradition, Lughnasadh (pronounced LOO-na-sa) in the Celtic tradition. It is the first of the harvest festivals, and we celebrate it with fresh baked bread from the first grain harvest of the year and we celebrate it, too, with spirits made from that grain. John Barleycorn is the personification of that grain; he is celebrated in poems and songs. Drinking songs, mostly, to go along with those spirits.

Perhaps because it is such an agrarian holiday, this cross-quarter celebration has fallen out of favor more so than the others of its ilk. Cross-quarter means it marks a halfway point––in this case, the halfway point between summer solstice and autumnal equinox. By traditional reckoning of time, this is the start of autumn, even though the hottest days of summer are perhaps still ahead of us. Certainly that is the case here in Florida, we know this, but I have been in Maine at Lammastide, too, and noticed the sumac trees beginning to turn toward shades of red, as we approached there the time of Queen Ann’s Lace and Black Eyed Susans and soon, asters blooming purple––a sure harbinger of fall.

And so we enter Lammastide, days marked well by a fresh baked crusty loaf and perhaps a pint of ale or a dram or two of whisky. Raise your glasses to each other and to me, if you will, and to old John Barleycorn, too. Summer is waning, autumn is coming, we are beginning to turn our thoughts toward gathering in. There is melancholy to that but warmth as well––warmth in that crusty bread, warmth in those spirits, too, and in the ones we gather to celebrate with. Happy Lammastide.

 

Image: “Lammastide,” one of a series of British postage stamps issued in 1981 celebrating folk traditions. As for your Convivio Book of Days calendar for August, it’s going to be a bit belated. Look for it after this weekend!

 

Love Calls Us to the Things of this World, or Your August Book of Days

And so with this first day of August we welcome Lammas, the old festival of the first harvest. Summer’s bounty is ripening all around us, and even here in Florida, where we grow things at a schedule mostly topsy-turvy from the rest of the country (our vegetable growing season begins next month, in September) there are usually figs ripening on the trees about now. When I was much younger than I am now, one of our neighbors had a fig tree. They also happened to be snowbirds: they spent the winters in Lighthouse Point, where we lived year round, but they went to New York for the summers. Which meant their figs would be left for the birds if we didn’t gather them ourselves, and so we ate many figs in Augusts gone by.

Now we get them at the market, and that’s good, too. I love them quartered or halved and drizzled with honey, a taste the very essence of late summer. We got our first ones just this week, and so it seemed right that our cover star for your Convivio Book of Days calendar for August should be that humble and delicious fig. These are Brown Turkey figs, though I am waiting patiently for my favorites, the white varieties: Kadota and Calimyrna. Perhaps this year I’ll finally poach fresh figs in wine, one of the recipes I’ve been pondering for many summers now.

As for the calendar, it is printable on standard US Letter size paper, and is a nice companion to the blog. If all goes well, I will write in the blog about most of these August red letter days. But my goal this month is also to complete the proposal for what I hope will be the “real book” version of the Convivio Book of Days. A blog is good, but I am an ink-and-paper person, a man who loves books. I realized that a few weeks back when I found an old 19th century book I had remembered reading years ago: Observations on Popular Antiquities by John Brand. I found it in the university library, and I checked it out. It was the first library book I’ve checked out in a long while, and it felt good to do so. The librarian handed me the book and told me when it was due, and I left with this wonderful gift and got some lunch and sat to eat and opened my book and traveled to 19th century England.

The figs drizzled in honey and the old book borrowed from a library both called to mind for me the words that Richard Wilbur used to title a poem: “Love calls us to the things of this world.” As summer begins its certain transition to autumn this Lammastide, this is what I think of. I wish you these good things, too, and everything else that means much to you this late summertime.