Rector’s Ramblings: Lammas – A Christian Harvest Festival

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

It so happens this month that Sunday, July 31st, is the last day of the month; Monday, the first of August, is a traditional English holiday which is little-known in this country, and when it is known at all, is often misunderstood: the first of August is known of old as “Lammas.”

That word, “Lammas,” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Hlafmaesse or Hlaf-más, meaning “Loaf-Mass.” Lammas is a festival of, as I say, English origin, held on August 1st as a thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest. Traditionally, a newly baked loaf from that wheat harvest was presented before God within the Mass of that day.

While the ceremony ceased at the Reformation, reference to Lammas Day continued in the Prayer Book calendar (it appears in the 1662 BCP, still the Book of Common Prayer in the U.K., as seen in the image); and the practice has been revived in some places in the English-speaking world, in more recent years.

Lammas falls at the halfway point between the summer solstice (c. June 21st) and autumn equinox (c. September 21st). On Loaf-Mass Day, it was once customary to bring to church a loaf made from the new crop, which began to be harvested on this day. Church processions to bakeries, where those working therein are blessed by Christian clergy, are also reported in some locations in the United Kingdom.

With the Neopagan revival (grounded in late-19th and early-20th century folklore studies, mixed with no little quantity of wishful thinking), this Anglo-Saxon Christian holiday was conflated with another and somewhat different one, the Celtic Lughnasad. However, more recent scholars – including the noted folklorist, historian, and author Ronald Hutton – question this connection, and in fact whether Lughnasad was a particularly widespread holiday at all.

It is important to note that Lammas is only attested by name in relatively late (for Anglo-Saxon history) manuscripts – 10th century and later, though there are a few 9th-century hints: well within the Christian era. Granted, it is likely that some sort of festival celebrating the first-fruits of the grain harvest was celebrated by just about every early agrarian society. But what is known for sure is that Lammas was practiced – and blessed by the English Church, the Ecclesia Anglicana – during Christian times, right up to the Reformation and even beyond.

And it seems to me that thanking God for the first fruits of the harvest is no bad thing! So why not bake a loaf of bread, if you’re of a mind to – today, tomorrow, on Monday, or at least sometime between now and the Autumn Equinox (Thursday, September 22nd, this year)? You don’t have to be a great baker; there are plenty of mixes available, these days, for quick-breads, or even cornbread muffins will do. If you can’t do that, perhaps a loaf of “artisanal” bread could be purchased, at Panera or maybe Lidl?

And if you can’t find a priest  to bless it for you (but see below!), say a prayer over it yourself, thanking God for the blessings of grain, food in general, and the bounty of this good Earth which He has given us. And then enjoy it, in good health! [If you’re gluten-free, or just not a fan of bread, a meal featuring local produce would also be appropriate.]

Of this festival, a blogger who writes quite interesting and erudite essays under the name of “A Clerk of Oxford” comments,

“To modern eyes, a harvest festival somehow looks pagan – but that doesn’t mean it is, and the assumption that it must be reveals more about us, and our impoverished view of the natural world, than it does about the past… For me, it’s fascinating to see how medieval writers thought about and wrote about the seasons, and especially to try and tease out the kinds of meaning – poetic, religious, spiritual, philosophical or scientific – which they found in seasonal cycles…

“[Some] people take the view that interest in natural cycles, or the natural world as a whole, is by definition solely ‘pagan’ (according to their understanding of that term, usually a markedly [21st]-century one), and that Christian writers have no business caring about it… What they can never seem to accept is that much of what modern audiences view as ‘pagan’ – solstices, the healing power of plants, astrology [*], and so on – were standard parts of medieval science, religion, and medicine.

“They were subjects of learned as well as popular interest, which even the most orthodox Christian writers accepted without question. (Not because they were too stupid to know better, but because their view of such learning and its sources and purpose was simply different from our own.) When people object to medieval Christians ‘stealing’ concepts they think of as pagan, it’s often because they are projecting back onto the past a very modern view of such matters, one ingrained with suspicion of the catholic (and Catholic) nature of the medieval church.”

[* A detailed discussion of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but in brief: both the pre-Christian Classical and the Christian view of astrology, through much of Church history, had nothing to do with horoscopes or our lives being “governed by the stars”; rather, it was founded in the belief that God has made the Universe comprehensible, and provided clues to its meaning in the heavens – which, in Ptolemaic cosmology, was the closest realm to that of God Himself: it is no surprise that “celestial” means “heavenly” in both the physical and spiritual sense of the words! See Luther Martin, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction for more details.]

For me personally, the season between Lammas and my birthday on or near the Autumn Equinox has long been one of my favorite times of the year. While it can still be quite oppressively hot and sticky, the shortening days and lengthening nights help to moderate the extremes of temperature, while this season is the height of the earth’s fruitfulness, here in the Northern hemisphere.

Fresh, local fruits and vegetables abound, from corn, tomatoes, beans, and melons to blueberries, peaches, and plums. Toward the end of the season, pears and early apples join the piles of colorful and delicious produce, as do the first of the Fall greens and brassicas. And perhaps most splendidly of all, the quality of light is changing: from the brassy, baking sun of High Summer to the more slanting, luminescent glow of Autumn.

A blessed time of the year, indeed, and one which is all too fleeting. Thanks be to God for the earth’s bounty, and Lammas blessings to all!

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Fr. Tom Harbold

P.S. If you would like to bring a loaf of “Lammas bread” to be blessed on Sunday, please feel free to do so! There is a “Blessing of Bread” found in A Manual for Priests of the American Church, Complementary to the Occasional Offices of the Book of Common Prayer, approved for use in this jurisdiction (currently available through the APA’s Anglican Parishes Association publications), which would be highly suitable. I will inquire if anyone has brought bread to be blessed, at the Offertory.

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