The Wheel of the Year, the Circle of the Season, Esbats and Sabbats, High Holy Days – an inevitable part of becoming a Pagan and/or Witch – lead to the addition of many more holidays (in the traditional sense of holy-days) into your life! As a new practitioner, this can be confusing. Many new witches, especially if they do not have a mentor or a coven, go to the internet for answers to these questions: What do I celebrate and when? Why is this particular celebration “holy” to me now? What does this day mean for my new spirituality and magickal practices?
While the Internet holds a nearly infinite library of information with more opinions than you’ll ever want, it is also largely unedited. The Internet is full of conflicting information, and without going back to academic source materials and archeological evidence, it’s difficult to sort out what is accurate and what is just commonly believed in the neopagan communities. In worst-case scenarios, what is pure opinion and/or overtly false may not be clear.
An excellent example of this is the harvest festival that falls on the 1st of August every year. It is obvious that humans have been celebrating the harvest since before written records. Humans have honored this time since the beginning of agrarian society, as food equals survival for all humans. In order to honor our bonds with Nature, with the cycle of the year, and with every growing thing, it is important that we as pagans and witches celebrate the harvest.
But where to begin? And which harvest festival is the most appropriate for the branch of paganism you have chosen to embrace?
The two major contenders for celebrating the first harvest in the Western world are Lammas and Lughnasadh. This article will shed some light on these two, often erroneously interchangeable festivals. We will discuss their origins and traditions, explore the best ways to honor our spiritual ancestors and the spirits of Nature with celebration and ritual, and consider why the two festivals are often used for the same sabbat. May it help to bring a happy, healthy harvest time into your life.
The term “Lamas,” sometimes spelled “Lammas,” or called “Lammas Day,” describes a harvest festival and has been in use since before 900 CE. The word comes from the Middle English “hlāfmæsse” (hlāf meaning “loaf” and mæssse meaning “mass”). This celebration is actually Christian in origin; indeed the early English church was still conscious of the intricate link between Nature and Mankind. Annually, on the 1st of August, early English Christians celebrated the harvest by consecrating loaves made from the first ripe grain – a literal “loaf mass.” As is typical of usurping religions, early Christians modeled their Lammas harvest celebration after the ancient English festival “The Gule of August.” During the Gule, the first fruits of the Earth were dedicated to the Goddesses and the Gods, who were honored with dancing and singing and feasting – all tried and true methods of celebration and praise that carry on to this day, regardless of the chosen spiritual path!
This festival was so important that its name was immortalized in popular culture. Shakespeare chose the auspicious eve of Lammas as his tragic heroine’s birthday in Romeo and Juliet. The festival also serves as an example of early sarcasm, as the phrase “later Lammas” was used to refer to a day that will never come, as in “she will pay at latter Lammas.” Finally, there is the proverb: “After Lammas Day, corn ripens as much by night as by day.”
Though technically an early Christian festival, Lammas is celebrated by many contemporary pagans. As this is a harvest festival, a grand feast is included in any coven’s celebration of Lammas, and of course, homemade baked goods are heavily featured. In recent decades, many neopagans choose to look at Lammas as having a metaphorical as well as a physical harvest element. Rituals honor the traditional first grain harvest, but many covens also include a meditation on what the witches’ personal harvests have brought them since the previous year. This includes plans coming to fruition in the individual lives of the coven members as well as the spiritual seeds that sprouted from what the coven sewed together in the past year. Lammas is a time for celebrating the hard physical and spiritual work that is done in making preparations and plans for harvest for looking with joy upon the fruits of labor, and for showing gratitude for all of the gifts Nature has bestowed upon the coven members, both individually and collectively. It’s a time for feasting, singing, and dancing while reveling in the joy of the harvest as well as the rewards of hard work.
Lughnasadh, in contrast to Lammas, is of distinctly Pagan origins. This festival was celebrated by ancient Celts as the feast of the wedding of the Sun God, Lugh, to the Earth Goddess. Lughnasadh was seen as the time to reap what was sown, and to give thanks to Nature for the abundance of food. It was a time of celebration, but also, and in contrast to Lammas, a time of transformation – of new beginnings.
In pre-Christian Irish legend, the Goddess Tailte died from exhaustion after making the Earth fertile and sowing the seeds that would create the Harvest for humans. Her son, Lugh, created an annual festival of funeral games in honor of his mother. These popular games, which included the long jump, high jump, spear throwing, boxing, and other games, were celebrated annually at the time of the Autumn harvest and were known as the Tailteann Games. In medieval times, these games continued and became known as the Tailteann Fare.
So we see that Lughnasadh is not just a harvest festival but also a festival of life and death. The grain dies, providing sustenance to all but will be reborn in the Spring. At the same time, there is richness and gaiety due to the fruitful harvest. It is at this time of the year that the Sun God begins his old age, and thus his strength begins to wane; even as the celebrations happen, the days are growing shorter and the nights longer. Just as our ancestors did with, both the physical and spiritual, it is important when considering Lughnasadh to remember that even when all is in full growth and Nature thrives around us, the cycle continues, and thus, life and death are intricately linked in a beautiful dance.
Another distinction of Lughnasadh from Lammas is that the Celtic Sun God Lugh was also the patron of craftsmen, barkeepers, and magicians. Due to his attributes, celebrations in his name frequently included craft fairs and demonstrations of craftsmen’s skills, talents, and craftsmanship. Contests displaying these talents were held; in a way, Lughnasadh was the precursor to our modern day Renaissance fairs that are notably held around the time of the Autumn harvest.
If celebrating Lughnasadh, this is the perfect time of the year to take up a new skill like pottery, metalwork, or beer brewing as it is a fertile time for self-improvement.
Many of our ancestors, and indeed many modern day witches and pagans choose the Autumn harvest time to get handfasted and/or married; indeed this is a great time for new beginnings.
Both the early Christian holy day of Lammas, and the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh are celebrations of the first Harvest, traditionally celebrated on the 1st of August. Because of this, the names are used interchangeably by many neopagans, especially those who practice Wicca. However, the festivals are not the same. One of the most beautiful aspects of the neopagan spiritual Paths is that each individual witch, pagan, and magician is free to choose her or his own ways of celebrating and honoring the seasons, Nature, and whatever deities they choose.
If one is adhering to a Path with strict boundaries and traditions, such as Gardnerian Wicca, the best course of action is to consult with the Elders and mentors, and honor the esbats and sabbats as those within that path do.
For eclectic neopagans and witches, it is best to meditate upon your choices, study the two festivals, and celebrate whichever calls to you most strongly. Most neopagans who honor the Celtic and Gaelic ancestors will choose to celebrate Lughnasadh. Some modern day witches practice both – often with a feast for Lammas and a ritual honoring Lughnasadh. All neopagan and modern witchcraft practices strongly emphasize personal discernment and responsibility. If you are confused as to which to celebrate, find a quiet spot to meditate and think it through. May the blessings of the harvest be yours this season and always.
Whichever harvest festival you choose to celebrate, the most important aspect to remember is that the harvest was crucial to the survival of our ancestors. Not only was it important to plant and cultivate the grains efficiently, but it was critical not to leave the crops out in the field too long, lest they rot, and to bake the bread just in time. Harvest time was a celebration of not starving. So, whether you celebrate Lammas or Lughnasadh, an attitude of reverence for Nature is key. Blessed be.
This article is from a previous issue of Wicca Magazine. Click Here To View What’s Inside our current issue.