If you have ever heard of the word Lughnasa, you are either a student of ancient Celtic customs, a fan of Tony award-winning Broadway plays, or a devoted member of an ancient Celtic worship community. The average person has probably never even heard the word Lughnasa, even in Ireland where in modern Gaelic it is often called Lúnasa, meaning the month of August.
One of the main reasons for Lughnasa's obscurity is the confusion caused by its variety of names and the differing regional dates on which it occurs. When the Gregorian system was adopted in Britain and Ireland, eleven days had to be dropped to make the calendar astronomically correct. This led to the festival being celebrated on either the 1st or the 12th of August, called respectively New Style and Old Style Lughnasa. All of what we know of Lughnasa is confined to those rituals which have survived in specific localities and cultures.
Lughnasa is a harvest festival, marking the end of the period of summer growth and the beginning of the autumn harvest. A popular misconception is that Lughnasa was a fire festival. It was not. It was associated with water and earth, expressed in wells, corn, flowers, and mountains.
In parts of Ireland the nearest Sunday to Lughnasa was known as Cally Sunday. It was the traditional day to lift the first new potatoes. The man of the house would dig the first stalk while the woman of the house would don a new white apron and cook them, covering the kitchen floor with green rushes in their honor. The family would give thanks that the 'Hungry Month' of July was over and the harvest had begun.
Tailtean Marriages were temporary unions entered into during Lughnasa. Some would last only for a day, others as long as two weeks. At the eleven-day Lammas fair at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, taking a partner for its duration was a common practice. For couples thinking of a longer term commitment this was a traditional time for handfasting. Couples would join hands through a hole in a stone, such as the ancient Stone of Odin at Stenness, and commit to each other for year and a day. Culturally sanctioned temporary unions may offend modern morality, but many of these temporary unions were not momentary, impulsive, or casual pairings. Rather, they were the first public commitment of serious couples, later to become permanent marriages.
Sports are a common feature of modern Lughnasa festivals. The various Highland games are probably a descendant of the Lughnasa games. Some are still held around the traditional time of Lughnasa, but may be held at any time during the summer or autumn.
At one time Lughnasa was widely celebrated in Ireland, Britain, France and possibly Northern Spain. The oldest forms of the festival included tribal assemblies and activities extending two to four weeks. So whichever date you want to pin your Lughnasa, may the end of your summer lead into a bountiful harvest season.
For the Celtic Cultural Alliance, I’m Silagh White. Slainte.