Not deferential enough: Lammastide

Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Lammastide

by Gina Hamilton

I've been in Chicago this weekend, having a bewildering, but nice, reunion with my brother and sister and their families, and my stepmother and stepsister.  We ate a lot, drank a lot, swam in my sister's blood-warm pool, shopped, and talked.  A lot.

So if this week's New Maine Times feels a bit thin, I apologize.  I'll tell the story of the reunion another time, after I have a chance to edit it.

This week marks the first of the harvest festivals, the feast of the first grains, or Lammas (loaf-mass).  The next two harvest festivals in the wheel of the year are the autumn equinox, and Samhain (pronounced sow-wen, more or less), which takes place at the end of October.

Lammas Day is August 1, and is the day the first loaves are made with the flour made by the new grains.  To protect the grain, the first loaves are quartered and placed in the barns where the grain will be kept, with one piece placed in corners closest to each cardinal direction.  Since I don't keep my grain in my barns, I will instead share the wealth with the chickens.

On Lammas, farmers construct a corn dolly out of the first stalks of wheat, in the shape of a woman.  The corn maiden, as she is called, is saved throughout the winter, and sown with the seed the following spring to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Lammas is associated with earth and water.  Holy wells are blessed on Lammas, for instance, decorated with late summer flowers, and mountains are ritually climbed so that the Earth can be honored from the highest summit to the river's valley. 

It was a time for summer fairs, and large gatherings of people.  It was also a time for weddings to take place ... first a trial marriage over the course of the local fair (usually 11 days), and then, if it seemed to be working out, a permanent one. 

The couple normally got together three months earlier, at Beltane, and were engaged, or handfasted, at Midsummer; a wedding at Lammas was the natural follow-up.  It was known whether the harvest would be a good one by then, there were plenty of witnesses and enough people to make a good party, fresh food and ale, new clothes, and still plenty of flowers.  A baby conceived at Lammas would be born in May, a healthy and secure time for a child to arrive.

Ancient, pre-Christian ritual sharing of one of the first loaves and the newly pressed cider at Lammas was the first "communion" celebration.  It was done at the end of the first day of the grain harvest, and every person was included, from the smallest baby to the oldest grandfather, connecting everyone in the village to the land, and to one another, in a meaningful, tangible symbol of mutual support.  Later, the first loaves were given to the church, which would use them in a special Lammas-Day service.

So this Thursday, bake your bread and make your corn maiden, that the rest of the harvest may be fruitful and next year's harvest will also be good.  Decorate your well and climb a nearby hill.  And don't forget to break your loaf into four pieces and put it in your barn.

And sing a round of John Barleycorn for good measure.

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