The grain is ripe for harvest. Apple trees and gardens bear forth the fruits of summer. This is the time of Lughnasadh, the ancient Celtic festival held in celebration of the first fruits of the harvest.
The modern Irish spelling, Lúnasa, is the name of the month of August in Irish Gaelic. Lughnasadh, an older spelling, is often used to designate the name of the seasonal festival that surrounds the first day of the month of August. In Scots Gaelic the day is known as Lunasda or Lunasdal. This is the time that marks a rest from labor, a time to take stock of what the summer sun has yielded. It is a time to celebrate and enjoy the outcome of our daily toil.
Lughnasadh is named for Lugh, the Celtic deity who presides over the arts and sciences. According to Celtic legend, Lugh decreed that a commemorative feast be held each year at the beginning of the harvest season to honor his foster mother, Tailtiu. Tailtiu was the royal Lady of the Fir Bolg. After the defeat of her people by the Tuatha De Dannan, she was obliged by them to clear a vast forest for the purpose of planting grain. She died of exhaustion in the attempt. The legend states that she was buried beneath a great mound named for her, at the spot where the first feast of Lughnasadh was held in Ireland, the hill of Tailte. At this gathering were held games and contests of skill as well as a great feast made up of the first fruits of the summer harvest.
Games and contests in honor of the dead were an ancient tradition across Europe. It has been suggested that the Olympic Games may originally have been held to commemorate the deeds of heroes who had died in battle. Offering up a portion of the harvest to the Gods and the Ancestors and feasting in their honor was also a common tradition in Europe and in indigenous cultures throughout the world.
As years passed, traditions surrounding the feast at Tailte began to solidify into events and ceremonial activities designed to celebrate not only Tailtiu and the bounty of the harvest that her original sacrifice provided but also to honor the work and sacrifice of human beings as they strove to provide sustenance for their families and community
The name of Lugh is derived from the old Celtic word "lugio", meaning "an oath". A traditional part of the celebrations surrounding Lughnasadh have been the formation of oaths. From before recorded history into the twentieth century marriages, employment contracts and other bargains of a mundane nature were formed and renewed at this time of year. Since the agricultural year had its culmination in the harvest and the harvest festivals, oaths and contracts that had to wait until after the corps were in could be focused on at this time. Marriages, hiring for the upcoming season and financial arrangements were often a part of the Lughnasadh activities and in many areas fairs were held specifically for the purpose of hiring or matchmaking.
In the Celtic nations of Europe traditions surrounding Lughnasadh still continue from pre-Christian times. Most often, celebration of the holiday occurs on the first Sunday of August or the Sunday just before the first day of August. In modern Ireland the tradition still continues that on the last Sunday of July families ascend into the hills of the countryside to pick bilberries. The bilberries are symbolic of the bounty of Mother Earth at this time of year and of the fruits harvested in that ancient time when Tailltiu made a place for the grain that would feed the generations to come after her. With the coming of Christianity to the Celtic lands, the old festival of Lughnasadh took on Christian symbolism. Loaves of bread were baked from the first of the harvested grain and placed on the church altar on the first Sunday of August. The Christianized name for the feast of Lughnasadh is Lammas which means "loaf mass". And, of course, there are the fairs which are still held all across Europe and America.
It is Lughnasadh that gave rise to the country fairs which have always traditionally been held in late August or early September in the Appalachian region of America. The early European settlers to the new land brought with them the tradition of celebrating the fruits of their summer labor and the harvest fair.
The small town country fair is the American Lughnassadh tradition. The agricultural competitions and midway games echo the ancient days when people gathered to pay homage to the land and the fruits of their labor and to take to take time for community reverie. When we as a culture shifted our focus to city living, we lost a sense of the community oriented celebration that was with our forbearers in the old days and that still exists in smaller communities. The time of Lughnasadh reminds us that we are not alone. We need this sense accomplishment in our work, of rejoicing in what we achieve as a group, of dependence on the community we live in.
If a sense of belonging is lost to some of you, if you feel disconnected from the world around you, perhaps what you need is to seek out one of the small county fairs near you in some out of the way and still mostly agricultural community. Go there and spend your money on the midway. Go into the exhibition buildings and see the the home canned goods and traditional crafts. Stand still and be aware of the time and the effort that went into these works. These are the works of the human spirit brought into being from the bounty of nature by human labor and imagination. We would have not come this far without them. Give honor to those people among us that still know how to reap the harvest. They connect us to the Old Ways of our ancestors.