Holiday History

By John Copeland

Today we don’t have any holidays in August, but it wasn’t always like this. In ancient times, the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, France and northern Spain celebrated the first of August as Lughnasa. Later, August 1st was celebrated by the Medieval church as Lammas.

Today, most folks have never heard the word Lughnasa. It’s a lost holiday.

How does one lose a holiday and, for that matter, why was it a holiday to begin with? Lughnasa was an agrarian celebration of harvest. As most of us today live in urban settings, the connections with crops and harvest no longer hold the same relevance for us.

Lughnasa, also called Lugnesed or Lugnasad, was named for Lugh, the Celts’ sun god, and it was a major festival. Lughnasa falls on what is referred to as a “cross quarter day.” The Celts and other ancient cultures divided the year based on the celestial events: the winter solstice, vernal equinox, midsummer solstice and the autumn equinox. These are called “quarter days.”

The year was further divided at the halfway point between the solstices and equinoxes. These days are called cross-quarter days and mark the beginning of each season.

For the Celts the start of autumn — Lughnasa — was the midpoint between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. It was their harvest festival, marking the beginning of harvest in the hope of peace and abundant food.

Relatively few of its customs survive today, usually confined to specific localities and cultures, and in these locales early August remains the traditional time for summer fairs.

Getting to the real facts of Celtic lore presents some real challenges. Whatever information the Celts may have left behind was lost as a result of their conquest by the Romans. What we know about the Celts is through the eyes of their conquerors.

The other source about Celtic beliefs came centuries later from the Roman Catholic Church and the unique version of Christianity that evolved in Britain and Ireland. Early Celtic Christianity emphasized a close relationship with the natural world and retained many practices of earlier Celtic traditions.

Brian Friel’s wonderful play “Dancing at Lughnasa” gives an excellent account of the holiday as it was still practiced in the early part of the 20th century.

Christianity remade Lughnasa into Lammas. The Anglo-Saxons called the day Lammas, derived from their word hlaef-mass, meaning loaf-mass. In the church the day was a special thanksgiving for the first bread of the harvest.

The “first bread” would be brought forward with the offering, placed on the altar, blessed and broken, and given to the people as the body of Christ. The first-bread blessing largely died out as a Christian ritual after the Reformation.

Lughnasa was the point in the year where one could tell the days were getting shorter. There is an old saying, “Today is Lughnasa, the night stretches.” If you are outside in the evening this month, you’ll notice the days are growing sho