Lughnasadh or Lammas is also the name used for one of the eight sabbats in the Wheel of the Year. It is the first of the three autumn harvest festivals, the other two being the Autumn equinox (also called Mabon by Wiccans) and Samhain. It is seen as one of the two most auspicious times for handfasting, the other being at Beltane.
Lughnasadh marked the beginning of the harvest season, the Harvest of Grain (Bread), the ripening of first fruits (usually berries), and was traditionally a time of community gatherings, market festivals, horse races and reunions with distant family and friends. Among the Irish it was a favored time for handfastings — trial marriages that would generally last a year and a day, with the option of ending the contract before the new year, or later formalizing it as a more permanent marriage.
In some English-speaking countries in the Northern Hemisphere, August 1 is Lammas Day (loaf-mass day), the festival of the wheat harvest, and is the first harvest festival of the year. On this day it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the new crop. In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of August. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called "the feast of first fruits". The blessing of new fruits was performed annually in both the Eastern and Western Churches on the first or the sixth of August (the latter being the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ).
In Celtic mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been begun by the god Lugh, as a funeral feast and games commemorating his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.
On mainland Europe and in Ireland many people continue to celebrate the holiday with bonfires and dancing. It was a traditional day for family reunions and parties. The Christian church has established the ritual of blessing the fields on this day.
The Celts celebrate this festival from sunset August 1 until sunset August 2 and call it Lughnasadh after the God Lugh. It is the wake of Lugh, the Sun-King, whose light begins to dwindle after the summer solstice. The Saxon holiday of Lammas celebrates the harvesting of the grain. The first sheaf of wheat is ceremonially reaped, threshed, milled and baked into a loaf. The grain dies so that the people might live. Eating this bread, the bread of the Gods, gives us life. If all this sounds vaguely Christian, it is. In the sacrament of Communion, bread is blessed, becomes the body of God and is eaten to nourish the faithful. This Christian Mystery echoes the pagan Mystery of the Grain God.
Grain has always been associated with Gods who are killed and dismembered and then resurrected from the Underworld by the Goddess-Gods like Tammuz, Osiris and Adonis. The story of Demeter and Persephone is a story about the cycle of death and rebirth associated with grain. Demeter, the fertility Goddess, will not allow anything to grow until she finds her daughter who has been carried off to the Underworld. The Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated around the Autumn Equinox, culminated in the revelation of a single ear of corn, a symbol to the initiate of the cyclical nature of life, for the corn is both seed and fruit, promise and fulfillment.
You can adapt the themes of Lughnasad and Lammas to create your own ceremony for honoring the passing of the light and the reaping of the grain.
Honoring the Grain God or Goddess
Bake a loaf of bread on Lammas. If you've never made bread before, this is a good time to start. Honor the source of the flour as you work with it: remember it was once a plant growing on the mother Earth. If you have a garden, add something you've harvested--herbs or onion or corn--to your bread. Most important is intention. All that is necessary to enter sacred time is an awareness of the meaning of your actions.
Shape the dough in the figure of a man or a woman and give your grain-person a name. If he's a man, you could call him Lugh, the Sun-King, or John Barleycorn, or the Pillsbury Dough Boy, or Adonis or Osiris or Tammuz. Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year suggests names for female figures: She of the Corn, She of the Threshing Floor, She of the Seed, She of the Great Loaf (these come from the Cyclades where they are the names of fertility figures), Freya (the Anglo-Saxon and Norse fertility Goddess who is, also called the Lady and the Giver of the Loaf), the Bride (Celtic) and Ziva or Siva (the Grain Goddess of, the Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia).
Like all holidays, Lammas calls for a feast. When your dough figure is baked and ready to eat, tear him or her apart with your fingers. You might want to start the feast with the Lord's Prayer, emphasizing the words "Give us this day our daily bread." The next part of the ceremony is best done with others. Feed each other hunks of bread, putting the food in the other person's mouth with words like "May you never go hungry," "May you always be nourished," "Eat of the bread of life" or "May you live forever." Offer each other drinks of water or wine with similar words. As if you were at a wake, make toasts to the passing summer, recalling the best moments of the year so far.
Another way to honor the Grain Goddess is to make a corn doll. This is a fun project to do with kids. Take dried-out corn husks and tie them together in the shape of a woman. She's your visual representation of the harvest. As you work on her, think about what you harvested this year. Give your corn dolly a name, perhaps one of the names of the Grain Goddess or one that symbolizes your personal harvest. Dress her in a skirt, apron and bonnet and give her a special place in your house. She is all yours till the spring when you will plant her with the new corn, returning to the Earth that which She has given to you. Corn Dollies are a form of straw work associated with harvest customs. Primitive communities believed that the corn spirit lived amongst the crop, and the harvest made it effectively homeless. Therefore, they fashioned hollow shapes from the last sheaf of wheat or other cereal crop. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in their homes until the "corn dolly" was ploughed into the first furrow of the new season. "Dolly" is a corruption of idol.
Food for Thought
Lammas is a festival of regrets and farewells, of harvest and preserves. Reflect on these topics alone in the privacy of your journal or share them with others around a fire. Lughnasad is one of the great Celtic fire-festivals, so if at all possible, have your feast around a bonfire. While you're sitting around the fire, you might want to tell stories. Look up the myths of any of the grain Gods and Goddesses mentioned above and try re-telling them in your own words.
Regrets: Think of the things you meant to do this summer or this year that are not coming to fruition. You can project your regrets onto natural objects like pine cones and throw them into the fire, releasing them. Or you can write them on dried corn husks (as suggested by Nancy Brady Cunningham in Feeding the Spirit) or on a piece of paper and burn them.
Farewells: What is passing from your life? What is over? Say good-bye to it. As with regrets, you can find visual symbols and throw them into the fire, the lake or the ocean. You can also bury them in the ground, perhaps in the form of bulbs which will manifest in a new form in spring.
Harvest: What have you harvested this year? What seeds have your planted that are sprouting? Find a visual way to represent these, perhaps creating a decoration in your house or altar which represents the harvest to you. Or you could make a corn dolly or learn to weave wheat. Look for classes in your area which can teach you how to weave wheat into wall pieces, which were made by early grain farmers as a resting place for the harvest spirits.
Preserves: This is also a good time for making preserves, either literally or symbolically. As you turn the summer's fruit into jams, jellies and chutneys for winter, think about the fruits that you have gathered this year and how you can hold onto them. How can you keep them sweet in the store of your memory?