Friday, July 28, 2023

Lammas Day

Lammas Fair at Ballycastle, artist unknown

Not all of the Church’s annual observances can be found on her official calendar. Throughout Catholic history, interesting folk customs, often in tandem with local agricultural cycles, have come to take on a religious significance. One such example is August 1. For many centuries it was the feast of St Peter’s Chains, while in the post-Vatican-II calendar it is the feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri. But in medieval and Renaissance England, the first of August was better known as Lammas Day.

“Lammas” is a contraction of “Loaf Mass,” one of about two dozen words in the English language that have the word “Mas” or “Mass” in them. (Christmas is the most famous, but there are others as well.) Lammas Day was the first harvest festival of the season, the time to celebrate the first-fruits of the wheat and barley crops. These cereals were important to the Anglo-Saxons, as can be seen from other aspects of their language: the English word “lord” means “bread-guardian,” while “lady” means “bread-kneader.”
We know that Lammas Day was a feast of Bread, but we are not entirely certain how it was celebrated. Mention is made in some sources of taking a loaf to Mass that day to have it blessed, but unlike other seasonal blessings (such as those found in the Roman Ritual), there does not seem to be a specific formula. We do, however, have one fascinating fragment from a nonliturgical source that recommends blessed Lammas bread as a mouse repellent. If you place crumbs of blessed bread in the four corners of your barn, and a cross on the floor of the barn entrance with the Pater Noster written on both pieces of wood, your barn will be just like the city of Jerusalem, where mice “do not live and cannot have power”, and where they cannot “rejoice with the wheat”! [Eleanor Parker, Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books, 2022), 196]
Lammas loaf owl with salt eyes
The origins of the feast are similarly shrouded in mystery. It is reasonable to suspect a pre-Christian precedent, and indeed there was an Irish festival on August 1 called Lughnasadh. The complicating factor is that the earliest Anglo-Saxon writings about the Church calendar do not mention the feast at all; it is only around the ninth century that written confirmation of the feast emerges, and with no reference to a pagan predecessor.
There are three things that we can safely conclude.
First, Lammas Day was, at least in some places or some times, an occasion of great festivity. The Ould Lammas Fair in Northern Ireland, for example, has been celebrated more or less continually for four hundred years--even though it is now held near the end of August.
Second, Lammas Day has an inescapably Eucharistic character. The New Testament records two slightly different versions of the Our Father. In Luke’s Gospel the verse is, “Give us, this day, our daily bread,” (Luke 11:3), and in Matthew’s it is, “Give us, this day, our supersubstantial bread.” (Matt. 6.11) Luke’s version can be interpreted as a petition for earthly sustenance, Matthew’s as a petition for the heavenly sustenance of the Blessed Sacrament. But the two categories are not mutual exclusive. Just as the Miracle of the Fishes and Loaves is a foreshadowing of the Miracle of the Eucharist, giving thanks to God for one’s daily bread is a foretaste of giving thanks to Him for the Bread of Life.
Tabgha Church Mosaic, Israel
Third, Lammas Day once had a curious impact on our language. People used the holiday as an important marker on the calendar. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet we learn that Juliet’s fourteenth birthday is on “Lammas-eve at night.” (I.iii.19) The festival was also used to designate property: “Lammas lands” were the fields used in common for winter grazing, while “Lammas wheat” was winter wheat, presumably planted in early August. And it helped in describing plants: “Lammas apples” were apples that ripened around August 1, while “Lammas growth” was the second set of shoots or leaves produced by a tree in the summer.
Some Lammas growth on oak, Titwood Farm, North Ayrshire. A second flush of foliage that occurs in around August.
Most curiously, Lammas Day inspired a whimsical term for “not ever.” A “latter Lammas” is a day that will never come, and “at latter Lammas” means never. History does not give us the reasoning behind these curious expressions, but my guess is that because Lammas was the first harvest festival of the year, a later Lammas that occurs afterwards is, logically speaking, impossible.
Such nomenclature is of course outdated, but it reminds us of the ways in which the Faith affected not only the beliefs and mores of the faithful but their perception and categorization of reality. Even little things like loaves of bread were viewed through the sacramental prism of the divine mysteries and its annual sacred cycle. Gratefully relishing God’s grandeur in the smallest of His creatures is a privilege of the Christian believer; please God may we not have to wait till latter Lammas to see such wide-scale public thanksgiving again.

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