Lughnasadh (pronounced “LOO-nah-sah”) is one of the four primary festivals in the ancient Celtic calendar. Each quarter of the year had its own celebration to mark the dark and light parts of the year. Samhain in October prepared for winter and the end of the harvest season. Imbolc in February celebrated the end of winter. Beltaine in May was perhaps the most important festival, celebrating the summer season. Lughnasadh in August was the Celtic harvest festival, welcoming autumn, the harvest, and marking the end of summer. To call it a mere harvest festival, though, would be to ignore the richness of the legend and meaning of the celebration.
The festival takes its name from Lugh, the Celtic god of light. Irish mythology suggests that the celebration began as a funeral feast--but the funeral was not Lugh’s. The funeral festival honors his mother Tailtiu, who is said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland so the people could farm and work the land.
WHO WAS LUGH?
Lugh was the descendant of two superhuman, mythological races who first inhabited Ireland (the Tuatha De Dannan and the Fomorians). Lugh traveled to Tara to join the Tuatha De Dannan, but was denied entry until he could present a special skill to show his worth. His skills as a smith, swordsman, musician, poet, craftsman, and sorcerer were all rejected--but they could not deny him entry when they were forced to admit that no member of the tribe was able to exhibit all those skills simultaneously. After Lugh was admitted membership in the Tuatha De Dannan tribe, they quickly chose him as their chieftain, and he led them into battle against the Fomorians.
Under Lugh’s leadership, the Tuatha De Dannan won the fight against the Fomorians, but Lugh spared their leader’s life after he promised to teach them all about planting and harvesting crops. The Tailteann games were organized to commemorate Tailtiu’s sacrifice in the name of providing for the people, and the first Lughnasadh fairs celebrated the successful harvest of the tribe’s crops.
LUGHNASADH & THE CELTIC CALENDAR
Lughnasadh generally takes place on the first of August (although if you want to celebrate when the ancient Celts probably did, you can celebrate on the day of the first full moon next to this date). The Celtic calendar’s “Wheel of the Year” had eight large holidays--the winter solstice and summer solstice were days of great importance (and there are monuments built to emphasize the importance of these days, like Newgrange). The spring and fall equinoxes were also important, marking the change in seasons and the preparations for things to come. However, the Celts also held festivals at the mid-way points of each season, and these mid-season celebrations eventually became major festivals. Lughnasadh, as the harvest festival, marks the noticeable descent of the sun towards winter--the dark time of winter is coming, but by Lughnasadh most of the harvest has not been reaped or stored.
HOW WAS LUGHNASADH CELEBRATED?
Many of the ancient customs of celebrating Lughnasadh have survived in one way or another in today’s celebrations. The original celebrations featured the Tailteann games, sporting events that honored the best athletes in Celtic society. The games would feature competition in events like the long jump, high jump, running, hurling, archery, spear throwing, wrestling, boxing, swimming, and horse racing. There were also a number of non-athletic events, as well. There were competitions in singing, dancing, poetry, storytelling, and other skills. Couples could venture into trial marriages, as well. The trial marriage involved the bride and groom holding hands through a hole in a wooden door while a ceremony was performed to unite the couple. The trial period was intended to last a year and a day, after which the couple could make their union permanent or go their separate ways with no questions asked.
THE HARVEST AND THE FEAST
Offerings were made to Lugh (since the festival really is all about him). As the harvest was begun, the cutting of the first grain and last grain were particularly significant. The first sheaf of grain harvested would be ceremonially cut at dawn, and then that first sheaf would be ground and baked into harvest bread. The first barley harvest would be made into the first beer of the season. The first-harvested grain was customarily given to Lugh before anyone else was allowed to eat—and then the entire community would share the first harvest bread in thanks for the riches of the harvest. The first sheaf of harvested grain was especially important as a symbol of the new seed and continuity of life, even as the long dark winter approaches.
The last sheaf of the harvest would also be ceremonially cut, carried into the village, and became a central feature of the harvest supper. The sheaf might be made into a “corn dolly” effigy, which could be a maiden in good harvest years—or a hag or crone in lean harvest years. This effigy would live in the home, often near the hearth, until the next year. The dolly may have been mixed with the seeds for the next year’s sowing, allowing the fertilizing spirits to pass from harvest to harvest.
A traditional bull would be sacrificed in the name of Lugh, and eaten as part of the feast. The bull’s hide would then feature in a ceremony where it was gifted to a member of the tribe, and the next year’s sacrificial bull would be selected. The feasts honoring Lugh were also a celebration of the harvest fruits--the first harvest corn and other grains reaped from the fields featured prominently alongside bilberries and the meat from the sacrificial bull. After the feast, there might be plays and storytelling, with dancing, remembering the stories of Lugh’s life and the gods and goddesses of the Celtic world.
Besides the games, the feasting, and storytelling, Lughnasa was also the best time of the year to make deals and trade. Chieftains would hold meetings, farmers would make trade agreements for the coming seasons, and neighboring rival communities would make peace (for at least the duration of the festival). Visits to holy wells were also part of the Lughnasadh traditions. People would bring small offerings like coins or flowers or strips of cloth, and leave them at the well after walking around it in a “sunwise” direction. The hope was that the gods would bless them with health and wealth for another year with these offerings at the well. In addition to asking for good health at the holy wells, people would climb sacred hills to make offerings of the first fruits of the harvest in order to give thanks to the gods.
LUGHNASADH AND LAMMAS
Lughnasadh may also be referred to in some circles as “Lammas,” although this reflects the Christian influence on the traditional Celtic festival. The word Lammas comes from the Old English phrase “hlaf-maesse,” which roughly translates to “loaf mass.” The first loaves of bread made from the grains of the first harvest would be blessed by the Church. While some Christian communities may still hold a traditional “blessing of the loaves” ceremony to celebrate Lammas, this particular tradition is not as popular as it once was. Those who still celebrate Lammas may attend church services or decorate their homes with harvest symbols like corn husks, wheat strands, or apples.
CELEBRATING LUGHNASADH TODAY
Lughnasadh is still celebrated in the modern era, although some of the ancient traditions have been adapted to the modern world. While trial marriages may not be one of the events of the day, there are still a number of local fall festivals in villages and towns that remember the spirit of the old celebrations, with food stalls, music, dancing, and craft tents.
Climbing hills and mountains is also still part of the celebrations. This tradition was adopted by the Christian population and the treks up the hill were re-named “pilgrimages.” One such pilgrimage that still lives on takes place in County Mayo—the Reek Sunday Pilgrimage in Croagh Patrick attracts thousands of people every year.
Ould Lammas Fair, County Antrim
The Ould Lammas Fair takes place in Ballycastle, County Antrim, on the last Monday and Tuesday in August, and is one such example of the continuing celebration of Lughnasa in a modern context. The Ballycastle event is one of the oldest fairs in Ireland, and while it hasn’t always been in Ballycastle, the fair has been held every year without interruption for over 300 years. At this particular celebration, you’re sure to find a good crowd, with over 400 stalls out selling a wide variety of treats, artwork, and other goods. There are traditional music sessions in the pubs, and face painting and pony rides for the children. If you’re looking for a bargain, there are plenty of artisans selling their wares—from jewelry to tools, fruits, carpets, and clothes. Even the old tradition of deal-making survives, where livestock is bought and sold as part of the festivities.
HOW CAN I CELEBRATE LUGHNASADH?
Remember, Lughnasadh is the celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, where some are enjoyed immediately while some is laid by for the lean winter ahead. If you are interested in having your own Lughnasadh celebration, you can certainly adopt some of the old traditions.
- Spend time outdoors. Go outside and reflect on the natural world, giving thanks if you’re so inclined.
- Save seeds from your food to plant in your garden next year. Part of the spirit of Lughnasadh is the continuation of the harvest from year to year. (Plus, growing your own garden can be rewarding and fun!)
- If you can’t wait to get started on your garden, you could always start a fall garden. Certain vegetables such as broccoli, onion, kale, turnips, cabbage, and others actually grow better in cooler weather rather than the searing heat of summer.
- If you can’t get outside, bring the outside in. Pick some seasonal flowers (sunflowers are especially lovely) and display them in a vase in your home. Decorate with greens and warm harvest colors—the golds, reds and oranges of the sun.
- Bake! Part of the celebrations involved offering bread for blessing, and you can do the same. Try your hand at baking your own bread to share with the people you love.
- Climb a hill. Part of the hill-climbing pilgrimages was intended to encourage the sun to stay high in the sky. Even if it’s a small hill, the tradition of going to the top of the hill and being closer to the sun is an easy way to mark Lughnasadh.
- Have a feast. You may not have your own sacrificial calf, but you can certainly organize a potluck dinner with friends and loved ones. Everyone loves a good meal, and a potluck encourages others to share their “harvest fruits” as well.
No matter how you commemorate Lughnasadh, of course, the key is to have fun. While we are not quite as dependent on our personal harvest skills as our predecessors were, it is still worth taking the time to celebrate the passing of seasons and count our blessings. During this Lughnasadh, we wish you the very best. May your harvest be bountiful, and sustain you through the winter months ahead.