Welcome to fall! One thing I’ve learned through my interfaith work is that the seasons are not nearly as well-delineated as my teachers implied during grade school. In this way, the seasons are somewhat like the perceived colors in a rainbow. Remember learning ROY G. BIV? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet? In reality, rainbows display the entire, continuous spectrum of visible light. The discrete colors are perceptual artifacts, and the number of colors assigned is arbitrary (and has changed over the years). So, too, with the seasons.
The changes that occur across any given calendrical year are seamless, and yet, we mark certain dates as the “start of this season,” or the “end of that season.” In truth, it’s hard to find a single date that everyone can agree on. For example, spring festivals officially begin with Hinduism’s Makar Sankrati on January 14 and continue through the pagan holiday of Brigid on Feb. 1, followed closely by Setsubun from the Shinto tradition. Americans, who mark the start of spring as the vernal equinox (around March 21), are quite literally behind the times from a global standpoint.
The same thing happens in the fall. People who lived in close harmony with the earth noticed long ago that, at this time of the year, the days are already getting noticeably shorter. They also noticed that various “first fruits” and grains were beginning to ripen. Imagine what it must have been like to realize that the hard work of sowing seeds was starting to pay off. Spiritual entities certainly deserved gratitude and praise, but offerings were also in order as there was still plenty of time left for the season’s crops to be ruined by storms or drought.
The Neopagan tradition kicks off fall on August 1st with Lammas or Lughnasad – two slightly different holidays with different historical roots. In modern times, that simply means we are left with double the stories and twice the fun.
Let’s start with Lammas. This holiday stems from the Anglo-Saxon tradition. With apologies to our British friends, we’ll skip most of the historical details and just say that the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic speakers who migrated to the southern part of the British Isles beginning in the 5th century C.E. This particular tradition managed to survive Christianization, the Vikings, the Danes, and the Normans on its way to becoming the modern holiday celebrated today.
Lammas is largely about wheat and bread. In this part of the world, the first harvest of wheat occurred around this time of the year. Bread was baked and then blessed. Some was offered to land-owning lords. According to certain customs, pieces of the loaf were spread about and used in the practice of magic or as charms to protect the crop.
Lughnasad (often seen with minor variations on that spelling) also marks the beginning of the harvest season, but its historical roots lie a bit farther north in Ireland and Scotland. Lughnasad is largely about the god Lugh. The legends surrounding Lugh are quite elaborate, beginning with his birth as the only surviving child in a set of triplets. Raised by foster parents, Lugh thrived and became a great king who was skilled as a swordsman, smith, poet, sorcerer, harpist and slingshot shooter.
Following the death of his foster mother, Tailtiu, Lughnasad founded the Tailteann Games. They were held during the second half of July and ended – when else? – on August 1. Although historians disagree on when the Games first began, they were almost certainly held from the 6th-12th centuries C.E. Competitions were held in all sorts of categories, including physical activities (running, jumping, swimming, spear-throwing, wrestling, singing, dancing, and sword-fighting), mental feats (problem-solving and story-telling), and crafting (weaving, jewelry-making, armouring, and goldsmithing). Following a hiatus after the Norman invasion, the games returned as more of a fair that also included an opportunity for trial marriages.
The two holidays provide modern-day multi-faith families with countless ways to celebrate. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Eat a Harvest Meal. Focus on whatever is ripening at this time of the year in your area. For us, that would include squash, corn, blueberries, watermelon, and tomatoes. If you have a home altar, consider offering a small plate of food to the deity/deities of your choice.
Bake Bread. If actually baking bread sounds too hard, just bake something that honors the grain harvest.
Make Grainy Crafts. The easiest craft is probably a corn husk chain. Simply tear your fresh, leftover corn husks into 1” strips. Make a ring with the first one and staple it shut. Add additional rings, just as you would with paper rings, stapling as you go. Grain weavings are another idea that’s fun for slightly older kids. Grains such as wheat and rye are easy to weave, and you can often buy supplies at your local florist shop. Below, you will find links to several You Tube videos that walk you through the process of making grain weavings.
Play Games. The point of the Tailteann Games was to exhibit skills, so feel free to show off in whatever ways you choose! You can try your hand at more medieval-type games like spear-throwing or shooting a slingshot. Or, you can modernize your “fair” with relay races, egg tosses, or Frisbee games.
Of course, the so-called heath-dwellers of the British Isles were not the only ones who recognized the importance of the harvest. There have been a few “first fruit” traditions throughout the history of Christianity. The most obvious one is the Blessing of the Grapes, still offered today by some Eastern Orthodox Communities in early August. From the Hindu/Indian tradition, we have Onam, a rice harvest festival celebrated at the end of August/beginning of September by the people of Kerala, a region in southwest India. This festival lasts for ten days and includes singing, dancing, and feasting. They also hold various games, races, competitions, and contests. Despite the similarities, however, the connection between these harvest festivals and Lammas/ Lughnasad is not entirely clear.
The Jewish tradition, however, offers something that is quite comparable in tone and meaning, even if the dates are not similar. Judaism has three major harvest-related festivals: Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot. Biblically-speaking, Passover commemorates the Israelites’ freedom from the hands of the Egyptians, Shavu’ot commemorates God’s gift of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and Sukkot commemorates the years spent wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.
Agriculturally-speaking, however, each holiday marks a specific point in the harvest season. Passover, which occurs in the spring around the time of Christian Easter, marks the ripening of the barley crop. The first sheaves of barley are offered in thanks, and everyone begins counting the 49 days to Shavu’ot, which marks the ripening of the wheat. Interestingly, in the Middle East, this period of time is one of some trepidation (like the time period following Lammas in more northern parts of the world), as quick changes in the weather can easily damage crops. On Shavu’ot, offerings of wheat, in the form of two loaves of bread, are made – both as a thank-you for a successful planting season and as a plea for an abundant fruit harvest, which is next. In fact, at Shavu’ot, some farmers would tie a reed around the first ripening fruits so they could be offered at various times between Shavu’ot and Sukkot, also known as the Festival of the Ingathering. The fruits grown in this part of the world, and those listed as appropriate offerings, are grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. And what do you plant right after Sukkot? Barley, of course, which will ripen by the time of the next Passover.
The Jewish harvest holidays are, in effect, their wheel of the year. As in the pagan tradition, the holy days serve to remind people of their connection both to the earth and to their God/gods. They also help to strengthen the faith of the people. Faith is living as though you are sure the sun will rise tomorrow. Faith is living with the certainty that what you give will also be received. Faith is living as though the seasons will come around again and again, as they always have. For people who lived much closer to the earth than many of us do, these celebrations were regular reminders, for the entire community, that no matter how difficult life gets, it does go on. Even if we buy our “first fruits” and bread at the local supermarket, we all still need such celebrations – on some days more than others.
Wheat Weaving You Tube links
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]