We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day. Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh. I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week. You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough. The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come. The wheel turns constantly. Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1). Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes). It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.
Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities. Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh. A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god. Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it. Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story. There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.
Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh. It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall. Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs. It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed. Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us. I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published. Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time. Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.