Summer's over: Today is Lughna Day,
the night stretches
If you have ever heard of Lughnasa, you are either a student of ancient Irish and Scottish customs, a fan of Tony-winning Broadway plays, or a devoted member of a Celtic worship community. The average person has probably never even heard the word Lughnasa, even in Ireland where in modern Gaelic it is often called Lúnasa, meaning the month of August.
One of the main reasons for Lughnasa's obscurity is the confusion caused by its variety of names and the differing regional dates on which it occurs. When the Gregorian system was adopted in Britain and Ireland, eleven days had to be dropped to make the calendar astronomically correct. This led to the festival being celebrated on either the 1st or the 12th August, called respectively New Style and Old Style Lughnasa. Relatively few of its customs were set down in oral folklore or written historical record; all of what we know of Lughnasa is confined to those rituals which have survived in specific localities and cultures.
There are several clearly defined themes that underlie traditional Lughnasa celebrations and rites. Lughnasa is a harvest festival, marking the end of the period of summer growth and the beginning of the autumn harvest. A popular misconception is that Lughnasa was a fire festival. It was not. It was associated with water and earth, expressed in wells, corn, flowers, and mountains. Fire played no substantial part unless you count incidental fires to cook the feast and bring warmth on cool summer nights. Fire is just as closely associated with the solstices and equinoxes; the practice of calling the four Celtic cross-quarter festivals 'the fire festivals' is a modern one.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 921 CE mentions Lughnasa as 'the feast of first fruits'. In Britain it is also called Lammas, from the Anglo-Saxon hlaef-mass meaning 'loaf-mass'. A special Eucharistic thanksgiving for the first bread of the harvest was an extremely popular Christian practice during the Middle Ages. The "first bread" is brought forward with the offering, placed on the altar, blessed and broken, and given to the people as the body of Christ. Though the first bread blessing largely died out as a Christian ritual after the Reformation, the custom is now being revived in places.
In parts of Ireland the nearest Sunday to Lughnasa was known as Cally Sunday. It was the traditional day to lift the first new potatoes. The man of the house would dig the first stalk while the woman of the house would don a new white apron and cook them, covering the kitchen floor with green rushes in their honor. The family would give thanks that the 'Hungry Month' of July was over and the harvest had begun. Though initially the custom of first fruits usually applied to grain, in later days, when grain crops were the province of large landowners, common people had no grain of their own to offer. The first fruits custom was then transferred to potatoes, an offering available to everyone with a patch of ground, and widely grown as a subsistence crop.
Assemblies on hilltops are a traditional part of the proceedings. In Ireland and the Isle of Man many of these hilltop gatherings have survived to the present day. On the Isle of Man the inhabitants would climb to the top of Snaefell on Lhuany's Day. A pilgrimage, often barefoot, would often be followed by drinking, dancing, fighting, and very unruly behavior. There is a legend that the custom of hilltop pilgrimages died out when clergy started to take collections at the summit.
For years archaeologists thought the massive man-made Silbury Hill, 130 feet high, must be a burial mound, but investigations have disproved this. Turves were used to construct the inner part of the hill in the Stone Age and remain within, with the grass and insects preserved. They were cut at the beginning of the harvest, about the time of Lughnasa. Then over a period of about 50 years blocks of chalk covered the turf.
There is some speculation that it is a harvest mound, representing the pile of earth raised up over a seed to make it grow. The same idea is echoed in burial mounds and even the great pyramids of Egypt—harvest mounds bring the "dead" seed within to rebirth. Sil may be the name of a sacrificed corn god. Possibly this is the same idea reflected in the turf towers built in Britain and Ireland and whole idea of mountain pilgrimages at Lughnasa. Festivities were held on Silbury Hill well into the eighteenth century including horse races and bull baiting, after which the bull was killed, roasted and eaten. A double sunrise effect may be observed on Silbury Hill at Beltane and Lughnasa.
Lughnasa was celebrated from the summit of the earth to the depths. In addition to climbing hills, Lughnasa was also a time for visiting holy wells. Wells on the Isle of Man were said to be at the peak of their healing powers at Lughnasa; St Maugold Well near Ramsey is reputed to cure sterility if the sufferer throws a pin in the well or dips their heel into it. Assemblies at wells would often be celebrated on the feast day of local saints, but many of these gatherings were moved from the saint's day to whenever Lughnasa was locally observed.
Flowers are a prominent Lughnasa theme, and in English villages wells are dressed with elaborate floral tributes on significant dates. Many sacred pagan wells were renamed after Mary (and other female saints), and floral arrangements were an important part of the August 15 feast of the Assumption of Mary, or Marymass. In northern Scotland, where the harvest naturally occurred later, Marymass eventually replaced Lammas as the festival of the first harvest. This may explain medieval associations of Mary with ears of corn. Mary's association with wells, mid-August Lughnasa flowers, and other harvest corn customs could be another example of the Christianization of pagan traditions and beliefs.
Late July and month of August are traditional times for fairs because the weather is usually mild and the ground is suitable for traveling. Many traditional Lammas/Lughnasa fairs are still celebrated today. The Puck Fair, in Killorglin, County Kerry (Ireland) is one of the best-known traditional fairs when a male goat is crowned as king for three days and known as ' King Puck' (from the Gaelic puc, meaning he-goat). At Lammas/Lughnasa fairs throughout Britain and Ireland various other male animals were enthroned and other symbols were displayed, such as a white glove, or the rods and wands of office belonging to local sheriffs and bailiffs. At the St James's Fair in Limerick, which lasted for a fortnight, a white glove was hung out at the prison, and during this time no one could be arrested for debt.
Many traditional summer fairs are called 'wake fairs'. A wake is a vigil kept in the presence of the body of a dead person in the period between the death and the burial. Games, feasting and drinking play a large part in the proceedings. It was also the custom to hold a wake, with a vigil and prayers, on the eve of the feast day of the local saint and follow it with a fair on the next day. Over a period of time the religious element of the custom died out and all that remained was a secular occasion with feasting and merrymaking. One pagan association with Lughnasa is as an elaborate wake for the corn god who dies with the cutting of the corn. A symbol of the corn god or other harvest god was often symbolically placed in a graveyard. Another explanation for mid-August Lughnasa as wake refers not to the death of a pagan god but general mourning for the death of summer. Though warm weather obviously continued after mid-August, this can be compared to the U.S. custom of marking the first Monday of September as summer's end, complete with elaborate cultural "mourning rituals" for the end of summer, even though relatively warm weather goes on for weeks.
Telltown, Teltown, or Tailtean Marriages were temporary unions entered into during Lughnasa. Some would last only for a day, others as long as a fortnight. At the eleven-day Lammas fair at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, taking a sexual partner for its duration was a common practice. Such couples were known as 'Lammas brothers and sisters'. For couples thinking of a longer term commitment this was a traditional time for handfasting. Couples would join hands through a hole in a stone, such as the ancient Stone of Odin at Stenness, and plight their troth for a year and a day. Culturally sanctioned temporary sexual unions may offend modern morality, but many of these temporary unions were not momentary, impulsive, or casual pairings. Rather, they were the first public commitment of serious couples, later to become permanent arrangements and marriages.
The Battle of the Flowers is a longstanding mid-August Lughnasa tradition. It takes place on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. The "battle" is between groups of islanders who compete to see who can make the most original display using flowers. Since the nineteenth century these have been paraded on flat trucks like carnival floats, but the local tradition of making floral patterns and pictures is much earlier. Exhibits can be up to forty-five feet long and contain a hundred thousand or more blooms. Hundreds of volunteers spend all night cutting heads off fresh flower stems and sticking them to the float framework. The festival also features an illuminated moonlight parade consisting of the massive floats accompanied by marching bands, and dancers. The "Battle of Flowers Festival" attracts an audience in the region of forty thousand people. In some areas with flower celebrations, the Sunday closest to Lughnasa is called Garland Sunday.
Lughnasa Sunday is known as 'Bilberry Sunday" in many districts of Ireland. It is traditional to climb the mountainsides to collect these fruits for the first time on this day. This has given rise to a variety of names for the festival- Blaeberry Sunday, Heatherberry Sunday, Whort Sunday etc. The size and quantity of berries at Lughnasa was a sign of whether the harvest as a whole would be good or not. Another example of these fruit-gathering traditions used to take place in County Donegal. On the first Sunday in August young people would set off after lunch to pick bilberries and not return until nightfall. Often "bilberry collecting" was only an excuse for young men and women to pair off for the day. The boys would thread berries into bracelets for the girls, competing to make the prettiest gifts for their partners.
There would be lots of singing and dancing. Before returning home the girls removed their bracelets and left them on the hillside. After climbing back down the hill the men indulged in sporting contests such as horse racing, hurling and weight-throwing. Sports are a common feature of modern Lughnasa festivals. The various Highland games are probably a descendant of the Lughnasa games. Some are still held around the traditional time of Lughnasa, but may be held at any time during the summer or autumn. Ripening crops have to be protected from the forces of blight and from the floods and winds associated with Lughnasa. Traces of this conflict are seen in the battle imagery associated with the festival, such as the Battle of the Flowers, faction fighting, and other competitive sports.
At one time Lughnasa was widely celebrated in Ireland, Britain, France and possibly Northern Spain. The oldest forms of the festival included tribal assemblies and activities extending two to four weeks. Many Lammas/Lughnasa festivities eventually became transferred to Christian saints' days: late July celebrations to St. James the Greater (July 25), mid-August celebrations to Marymass (August 15). The August 21 date often associated with Lughnasa in some modern Celtic art would therefore have been an extremely late date according to most folklore and surviving rituals.