What can we learn, and how can we teach, from the cycles of the Earth — both the cycles within us, and the cycles in which we find ourselves?
The Dog Days of Summer
Do you know that time in late summer, when the air seems heavy and full, and the heat gets hotter, and everything seems to slide from ripe to overripe? It’s that sultry, sticky time sometimes called the Dog Days, after Sirius the Dog Star.
It’s my favorite time of year. Most of the people here in New Orleans think I’m crazy. Maybe I am. Then again, I work in an office which is maintained at such a bone-chilling temperature that some of my co-workers resort to using space heaters in August.
After the summer solstice, our hemisphere’s axial tilt to the sun diminishes each day. Slowly the days are growing shorter, the nights longer. The light is waning. Yet, outside the tropics at least, as a rule, the warmth increases. The processes of life, fueled by the sun, do not diminish but continue waxing. Just as solar noon is not the hottest time of the day, the solstice is not the hottest time of the year. That’s because of the simple fact that it takes time for the sun’s rays to warm things up.
This phenomenon is known as the lag of the seasons, and it may be observed on some other planets in our solar system as well as our own, particularly the gas giants. It just takes a while for those big atmospheres to heat up. On Earth, the seasonal lag is largely due to all the water with which we’re blessed. The oceans function as heat sinks. Thus, places surrounded by water may have a longer seasonal lag than dry places. In San Francisco, the hottest average period is in September, but in Death Valley, it’s in July.
Those who track the progress of the sun will correctly note the summer solstice as the crown of the year. Paying attention to the rhythms of the Earth reveals another apex, less precise, but perhaps even more relevant to humanity. In much of the world, that second apex takes place midway between the summer solstice and the equinox, at the end of July or the beginning of August in the northern hemisphere (late January or early February in the southern hemisphere).
We may not be highly attuned to these rhythms, but it comes as no surprise to learn that ancient people recognized this time and celebrated it. There’s a harvest festival which the Celts called Lughnasa or Lughnasadh. It’s still known in that last bastion of Celtic culture, Ireland, where it’s called Lúnasa. To the Welsh, it’s Gŵyl Awst; to the English, Lambess or Lammas.
A Modern Harvest
Shakespeare makes a point of fixing Juliet’s birthday on Lammas Eve, a fact which is announced as soon as she first appears on stage. This bit of foreshadowing would have appreciated by contemporary audiences: she was born just before the harvest; tragically, but poetically, her life will end before she comes into the full ripeness and maturity of womanhood.
My favorite literary reference, however, comes from Robert Burns in an 1783 lyric which recounts a romantic tryst in context of the grain harvest.
It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie;
The time flew by, wi’ tentless heed,
Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.
(An updated version of this lyric can be heard in the opening credits of the classic 1973 film, The Wicker Man, noted for its folk soundtrack by Paul Giovanni.)
I was confused by the word “corn” at first. Isn’t that a New World crop? I soon learned that, in the Atlantic Archipelago, corn refers to wheat or oats or barley, whatever might be the main cereal produced in a given area — not maize. The first harvest of such grains was the occasion for the festival of Lammas.
For 21st-century Americans like myself, this celebration is almost completely unknown. It is easily the most obscure of the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year. The four solar holidays are at least vaguely familiar as the starting dates for the four seasons, though most Americans don’t know their solstice from their equinox. That leaves the four cross-quarter days. Three of these correspond roughly with Halloween, Groundhog Day and May Day; only Lammas is unassociated with a modern holiday. In fact, August is sometimes held to be “the month without a holiday” in the American calendar.
In that obscurity, I see opportunity. We may come to this holiday without preconceived notions and set ideas. We may discover unexpected depths and make new connections if we are open to possibilities.
The Possibility of Lammas
It was at just such a time, a time in my life of opening to new possibilities, when I celebrated my first Lammas. Ever since my daughter had been born, I’d been on something of a spiritual quest. I was seeking to discover my own identity, and looking for a tradition in which my daughter might be raised — or more accurately, to which she might be exposed, as I don’t presume to find her path for her.
I was particularly intrigued with these people who called themselves “Pagans.” A photo in the paper showed a local Pagan group, the New Orleans Lamplight Circle, working to build a community garden. From that photo, I connected with the group online and kept looking for a meeting I could attend. They sponsored drum circles, meditations with Tibetan singing bowls, workshops on beneficial bugs for the garden, panel discussions on witchcraft, ice cream socials, all manner of things. At last I found something that coincided with my schedule.
And so, on the last day of July, I rode my bike out to City Park to meet some of these folks for the first time. Riding in the child seat was my daughter, 2½ years old, because this event was billed as “Lammas for Kids.” I didn’t know what to expect exactly.
What we found was sweeter than I imagined, full of beauty and meaning. We did some chants and songs with hand motions, honoring nature and the elements. There was some face painting and story-telling. We shared a simple but satisfying feast with an emphasis on bread. We also made corn dollies, traditional effigies of the harvest season. Actually we made horsies out of grass. The one I made was a little on the shabby side, but I was holding a toddler on my lap the whole time.
Participating in this celebration fulfilled a longstanding goal: I wanted my daughter to have a broad and well-rounded religious education. Mainstream Christian doctrine is easily encountered, but rituals such as this are more obscure — though becoming more visible all the time. I wanted my daughter to see that religion comes in many forms and varieties, and that it needn’t take place only in a church or a mosque or a synagogue.
The Lammas-Tide of Life
Since then, we’ve continued to celebrate Lammas at home as a family. (I’m still active with Lamplight, but the chief organizer of the kid-oriented rituals moved away.) Every year our celebrations evolve a bit. We usually make corn dollies, though the materials have changed over the years. I have taken to fashioning them out of the subtropical ferns which grow in our backyard. We have a bonfire to which we commit the Brigid’s crosses which we made at Candlemas. This is a way of connecting across the year, and also of simulating the agrarian cycle on which we still depend, despite the illusions of the global marketplace. Most importantly, for Lammas, we bake bread.
There are many mysteries wrapped up in a loaf of bread. The process of baking from scratch can connect us to history, science, culture, agriculture, and nature. The bread can be a symbol of all these connections, of our relation with the Earth and with humanity. Best of all, it’s a delicious and healthy food, which has become a mainstay of my family’s diet. Inspired by the holiday, I’ve been baking bread pretty much every week for several years now. One might say that we celebrate Lammas every weekend.
On Lammas, we bake a special loaf, a bread figure. Sometimes the figure is roughly humanoid in shape, to the best of my severely limited skills. Last year, we made a one-eyed cat at my daughter’s insistence. A highlight of Lammas is tearing apart this figure and eating it. This year we’ll make a point of feeding the bread to each other.
Of all the holidays, Lammas is the closest to my heart, the best day of the year, for all the reasons enumerated above — plus perhaps one more. Lammas corresponds to where I am in the cycle of life, somewhere past my summer solstice, somewhere in my late summer, with autumn coming soon behind. That sense of melancholy on the verge of dissolution, that gentle bittersweet ache of loss, is inherent in this seasonal moment.
For me, it’s not just a celebration of the agricultural harvest but also a time to think about how we stepped into the spiral, where we’ve come since, and where we’re headed. Rituals and traditions gain power over time, as associations and resonances build. Simply doing the same thing at the same time of year can be richly rewarding. I’m looking forward to deepening our experience as we continue to move around the wheel again.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.