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Type of Holiday: Ancient, Religious (Neopagan)
Date of Observation: August 1
Where Celebrated: England, Ireland, Scotland
Symbols and Customs: Funeral Processions, Hilltops, Oak Tree, Teltown Marriage
Related Holidays: Beltane, Imbolc, Lammas, Mabon, Reek Sunday, Samhain, Summer Solstice, Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox


Celtic peoples lived in Ireland, Scotland, England, and northern France from around B . C . E . until around 100 C . E ., when the Romans conquered most of Celtic Europe. Little is definitely known about ancient Celtic religion. The Celts themselves left sparse written accounts. Julius Caesar, who led the Romans into Celtic lands, wrote of his impressions of the people, as did other ancient Greco-Roman writers.

During the 1960s the modern Neopagan and Wiccan movements emerged in Great Britain, the United States, and other English-speaking countries. They follow a nature-oriented religion loosely linked to ancient Celtic and other beliefs and inspired by old European folk practices. They celebrate eight sabbats, known as the eight spokes of the wheel of the year, which include Lughnasa as well as SUMMER SOLSTICE , WINTER SOLSTICE, VERNAL EQUINOX, BELTANE, SAMHAIN, IMBOLC , and MABON.

Along with BELTANE, SAMHAIN, and IMBOLC, Lughnasa was one of the four major Celtic festivals observed in the British Isles during pre-Christian times. It takes its name from the ancient sun-god Lugh and the Celtic nasadh, meaning "commemoration." August 1 marked the midpoint of the warm or "summer" half of the year, which extended from May through October. Since the Celts measured their year from midsummer to midsummer, this festival was both a commemoration of the passing of the old year, as symbolized by FUNERAL PROCESSIONS for the sun-god Lugh, and a celebration of the arrival of the new year with games, feasting, and magic shows.

In Ireland, two important gatherings took place during Lughnasa: the assembly of Tailte, named after the goddess who was also the foster-mother of Lugh; and the assembly of Carman, which commemorated the grief of the mother-goddess Carman when her sons were expelled from Ireland. It was therefore an important gathering time for Celtic women, and there is evidence that ceremonies associated with marriage (see TELTOWN MARRIAGE ), fertility, childbirth, and other female rites of passage took place during the festival.

In England, August 1 was called the festival of the Gule of August, a harvest celebration that was the forerunner of the American THANKSGIVING. When Christianity arrived, it was called LAMMAS, which may have come either from Lughmass or from "loaf-mass," since it was customary for loaves made from the first ripe grain to be blessed in the church on this day. Another theory is that the name derived from "lamb-mass," because it was the time of year when worshippers would bring a live lamb as an offering to the church.

While Beltane remained a pagan holiday and Samhain was largely replaced by the Christian festival of All Saints' Day, Lughnasa retained a mixture of pagan and Christian customs. In the Scottish Highlands, people used to sprinkle their cows and the floors of their houses with menstrual blood, which they believed would ward off evil on this day. Elsewhere in Scotland, Lammas was one of the so-called Quarter Days, when tenants paid their rents-an obvious Christianization of the harvest festival custom of having tenants bring the first new grain to their landlords. In Ireland, where the celebration of Lughnasa waned during the late nineteenth century and then was revived in the twentieth, it has survived primarily as a seasonal celebration.


Funeral Processions

Because Lughnasa was originally a festival of mourning for the death of the sungod Lugh, funerary rites and processions were a common practice. It is possible that at one time the victims were real, and that eventually they were replaced by effigies of the dead, carried in procession and buried in symbolic graves. Some scholars believe that in ancient times, when the Celtic kings reigned for only a year, the old king allowed himself to be put to death so that a new king could take his place. Since the Celts normally crowned their kings at midsummer, this would explain the necessity for funeral processions at Lughnasa.

In any case, the festival was an occasion for paying homage to the dead-particularly warriors and heroes in the style of Lugh-and eulogies or poems praising ancient gods and heroes were often recited. Even today, mock-funeral processions are occasionally held in Yorkshire and Lancashire, England, with groups of young men carrying an empty coffin for many miles along an ancient path.


Lughnasa was a popular time for gathering berries, particularly bilberries. In Ireland, where Lughnasa began in mid-July and lasted until mid-August, the first Sunday of this four-week period was known as Bilberry Sunday. Young people would go off to the hilltops, where berries were plentiful, and not return until dusk. The boys would make bilberry bracelets for the girls by stringing the berries along short pieces of thread, competing with each other to see who could make the most beautiful bracelet for his girlfriend.

Many of the hilltop sights originally visited for berrypicking were later taken over by the Catholic Church and turned into pilgrimage sites. Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland, is a good example. Also known as The Reek, it is Ireland's holiest mountain, and pilgrims flock to it on the last Sunday in July, which is known as REEK SUNDAY . Although the Christians who climb Croagh Patrick do so because they want to pray on the spot where Ireland's patron saint is believed to have started his ministry, this hilltop's fame may also be rooted in pagan celebrations.

As recently as the nineteenth century, people in Ireland were still visiting more than 100 hilltop sites on August 1 for berrypicking and pilgrimages.

Oak Tree

It is possible that the Druids, an ancient Celtic class of priests, venerated oak trees. If so, they were not the first to do so. There were oak cults in ancient Greece and Libya, and scholars believe that the oak cult came to Britain somewhere between 1600 and 1400 B . C . E ., at least 500 years before the Celts.

According to some writers, the trees associated with the midsummer months are oak and holly, with the oak representing the god of the old year and the holly the god of the new year. The sun-god Lugh is associated with the oak in Celtic mythology because he symbolizes the old year (or the old king) who must yield to the new year (or new king) on August 1.

Teltown Marriage

Lughnasa was a time for the king to reconfirm his divine "marriage" to the wellbeing of his kingdom. Midsummer was also a popular time for real marriages, since the harvest was in, food was abundant, and agricultural chores were less demanding. In many ways, it was the most relaxed time of year, when people had the leisure to celebrate.

In medieval Ireland, there was a special kind of "trial" marriage that could only take place at Lughnasa. Called a Tailtean or Teltown marriage-after Tailte, a powerful goddess and the foster-mother of Lugh-it lasted only a year and a day. It could be dissolved without any social stigma, but only if both individuals returned on the next Lughnasa and went through a ritual in which they walked away from each other-one heading north and the other south.

Teltown, located in Ireland's County Meath, was also the scene of one of the most important gatherings that took place on August 1: the assembly of Tailte (see "Origins").


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1995. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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