Between Summer Solstice and Autumnal Equinox lies Lughnasa, one of the four cross-holidays of the Celtic Wheel of the Year. The other holidays are Beltane, Samhain, and Imbolc. All are connected to fire and the cycles of the harvest.
At this point, I am still finding other cultures’ references to this time of year. One of our students who has been studying Norse mythology, William Scott Morgan, alerted me to the Norse holiday of Freysblot, sometimes referred to as Freysfest, which celebrates the first fruits of the year — in particular, wheat — and honors the Norse God Freyr and, often, the Goddess Freya.
Lughnasa is named after the pagan God Lugh. He is often associated with the sun, sportsmanship, craftsmanship, youth, skill, the spear, and, at times, is depicted as a three-headed God. Grain, especially wheat, was often not harvested before August 1. August 1 would thus symbolize the beginning of the harvest season. Only some crops would be harvested at this point: so it is a combination of harvesting and growing, celebrations of abundance, and, traditionally, a lot of athletic competitions.
With Christianity, it seems that Lughnasa shifted to Lammas, the feast of bread, or Loaf Mass Day. I say “it seems” because there is little hard evidence, though neo-pagans today associate the two together. Quite possibly, Lammas did not become a significant part of the church calendar until after the 13th century.
Lammas is part of both the Catholic and Anglican liturgical calendar and remains a part of the Book of Common Prayer. It is one of the older Christian holidays in Britain, symbolizing the Church’s relationship to the agricultural society around which it is based. With the first harvest, wheat would be ground, baked, and brought to the Church for blessings. Loaves of bread would be split and shared. In some places, the loaves became part of communion. In other places, there would be a procession from the Church to the bakery, and the bakery would become part of the sacredness of that holiday. After Church, the bread would become part of protection rituals.
The first harvest would have signified the beginning of Autumn. In Olde English, the word for Autumn was hærfest, from which we derive our modern-day “harvest.” It was less about the turning of the colors of the leaves in the trees and more about what was growing when — and how that would have shifted labor, teamwork, and the lives of the majority of the people. The term Lammas itself might have extended to include the whole month of August or even the Harvest season, depicting not just a day but a season.
This Lammas charm came from a monastery in Winchester in the 11th century:
[Take two] long pieces of four-edged wood, and on each piece write a Pater noster, on each side down to the end. Lay one on the floor of the barn, and lay the other across it, so that they form the sign of the cross. And take four pieces of the hallowed bread which is blessed on Lammas day, and crumble them at the four corners of the barn. This is the blessing for that; so that mice do not harm these sheaves, say prayers over the sheaves and do not cease from saying them. ‘City of Jerusalem, where mice do not live they cannot have power, and cannot gather the grain, nor rejoice with the harvest.’ This is the second blessing: ‘Lord God Almighty, who made heaven and earth, bless these fruits in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.’ Amen. And [then say] a Pater Noster.
Modern sentiments about religion and magic might associate this charm with “magical thinking” less associated with the Church today, but certainly, during the medieval period, charms and prayers (incantations? mutterings?) would have been seen as part of Christianity.
If we see this as the early beginning of Fall, what shifts in our perception of the season? Such a question is interesting to ask in the UK and some parts of the northeast of the US and Europe, where the seasons are somewhat related to what we had in England. But for the rest of the world… I think the bigger question is what the seasons are like where you are and what is happening in both your livelihood and your engagement with the seasons during this cross-quarter holiday.