Category Archives: Lughnasadh

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.

 

Old Man Summer: Lammastide

Harvest Rest

The wheel of the year turns another notch, July gives way to August, and the shift brings us to the next cross-quarter day: Lammas, or, in the Celtic tradition, Lughnasadh. It feels most definitely still like summer, but Lammas brings the first suggestion that summer is ripening into autumn. Indeed, in the traditional reckoning of time, Lammas brings the first day of autumn, as we are now well past summer’s zenith, which came with the June solstice: we are about halfway between that solstice of midsummer and the upcoming autumnal equinox.

And I know this is bittersweet, this idea that summer is passing, but with Lammas, we enter into my favorite time of year. Don’t worry, I see the irony; this blog I write about the wheel of the year constantly reminds us to live in the present and to enjoy the ceremony of each day, but here’s my confession: This is the time of year I look forward to, always. I like the ripening bounty of summer, the increasing darkness on the way toward the midwinter solstice, the gathering in, the harvest. So while Lammas these days gets short shrift in most places, it is a signal to me that we are coming into the months I love best, and so I have a soft spot in my heart for this old, practically forgotten holiday.

Lammas is the celebration of the first harvest. It is truly a holiday of our agrarian past, when most folks earned their livings off the land. While most of our celebrations and holidays are rooted in this past, Lammas hasn’t translated very well to contemporary life. Most folks are not interested in celebrating the waning of summer. We look around at all that is thriving now in summer’s gentle days, but we understand that it won’t be here long. Shakespeare understood this well. His Juliet was born at Lammastide; his play Romeo and Juliet takes place in the heat of the last week of July, and Juliet never reaches her birthday; she is, in a way, a sacrificial first harvest.

So is John Barleycorn. Tradition would have us bake a loaf of bread for Lammas. It was considered bad luck to harvest grain before Lammastide, and so this Lammas loaf was baked always with the newly harvested grain. It is traditional also to break out a bit of the other stuff that is made from grain: whisky and ale are typical candidates. John Barleycorn is the personification of the grain that makes both. Barley, corn, wheat: he represents them all, and in the old song about him, John Barleycorn must die before he can be resurrected as bread and as warming, inspiring drink. (To be honest, the old song doesn’t care much about his appearance as bread; it is an old drinking song, after all.)

Out of Lammas come the county fairs we know so well, celebrations as they are, at heart, of the first harvest. Ours, here in Palm Beach County, Florida, is in January… which may seem to most like an odd time of the year for a county fair. But here in this topsy-turvy land, we begin planting our fields in September and October; January is our first harvest. It is, in a way, our local Lammastide.

Topsy-turvy though we are, we still keep time with the rest of the country, and even if our transition to fall is a subtle one, Lammastide keeps me going through these waning days of a long Florida summer. If you, like me, are looking forward to all the bounty of autumn and the quaint celebrations of winter that call down the light even in darkest night, then Lammastide may be days you, too, should consider marking. Lammastide begins with Lammas Eve on the 31st of July, continues through to Lammas on the First of August. The baking of a loaf of bread would be perfect, but fetching a good crusty loaf at the bakery would be just as fine. You might accompany this with a bit of whisky or ale, raising your glass to Old John Barleycorn and to Old Man Summer, drinking down the warmth of summer, seeing where the inspiration leads you.

 

Image: “Harvest Rest” by George Cole. Oil on canvas, 1865 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Our summer vacation, by the way, has passed. We are back home again in Lake Worth, which also is bittersweet; missing the place and the people we left behind, but also happy to be home in the other place we love, with other folks we love. If we could gather them all up around us whenever we wanted, that would be a wonderful thing.

 

First Harvest

Sommer

July comes to a close and August begins: this is Lammastide, an old holiday few will recognize, yet one very valuable, Lammas helps us begin our gradual transition from summer to fall. Indeed, it is the start of the autumnal season in traditional reckoning of time, for here in the Northern Hemisphere we are now halfway between the summer solstice of June and the autumnal equinox of September. This makes Lammas one of the cross-quarter days, like Imbolc at the start of February, which brings the start of spring to a winter-weary world.

Lammas is perhaps more bittersweet, for it is more difficult to be weary of such a gentle season as summer. But in the spiraling circular nature of time, everything is in flux, and each day since Midsummer in June has brought us increasing darkness. The days will continue to grow shorter and shorter until Midwinter’s solstice in December. The weather may lag behind somewhat, but there is no question that summer is ripening and growing old. In the fields, the grain is ripening, and the first harvest traditionally took place right about now. This is the origin of Lammas. The name comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon Hlafmass, or “Loaf-mass,” and at Lammastide, the first loaf of bread would be baked from the newly harvested grain and brought to the church to be blessed. All labor would cease and there would be community gatherings, perhaps the precursors of our contemporary county fairs that begin to pop up this time of year and which also, at their heart, celebrate agriculture and the harvest.

Grain yields not just bread but also whisky and ale, and all of these things play a part in Lammastide celebrations. If you are celebrating with us, Lammastide begins tonight with Lammas Eve and continues on to Lammas tomorrow, the First of August. The needs for a proper celebration are simple: a good loaf of bread and a festive beverage should be your table’s focal point. Some bakers make elaborately shaped breads just for Lammas, but simple is good, too. Never underestimate the power of simplicity.

Lammas was a big deal in Elizabethan England, and William Shakespeare brought some of the symbolism of Lammas into his tragedy Romeo and Juliet, symbolism that perhaps escapes our modern sensibilities. The play takes place in the heat of July, just before Lammas. Juliet’s nursemaid in Act I describes the fair Juliet and tells us, “On Lammas-Eve at night shall she be fourteen.” English majors like me who love to find connexions in these things almost always view Juliet in terms of the sacrificial first harvest. She is, in fact, in her tomb before Lammas arrives, less than a week after meeting Romeo. (Sorry for the spoiler… and try topping that next time you’re complaining about having a bad week.)

You may also hear this time of year called Lughnasadh––this is the Celtic version of Lammas. The celebration is much the same. Our suggestion, as you might easily assume, is to celebrate and mark this day. We are not, for the most part, an agrarian people anymore, and this explains the waning of a celebration like Lammas. But we rely on those who grow the grains we eat, and so why not set some time aside to enjoy with gusto the fruits of their labors––the farmers, the bakers, the brewers and distillers. Honor them, honor the bread you eat, the ale you drink, celebrate with us this first harvest as we begin to set our sights toward autumn.

Image: Sommer by Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth. Oil on canvas, 1890. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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