Why I’m Boycotting Lughnasadh Again

I remember when I was in high school and Indiana changed its license plate to include the phrase “Amber Waves of Grain”.  It pissed people off.  I mean, really pissed people off.  Because in Indiana, we grow corn and soybeans, not wheat.  While technically corn is a grain, it’s not amber.  While the phrase was poetic, it just did not speak of “home” to the people of the Hoosier State.  That’s kind of how I feel about Lughnasadh.

Autumn in Summer?

Lughnasadh or “Lammas” is celebrated by many Pagans this weekend.  Many call this day the “first harvest”.  Mike Nichols begins his much-quoted article on Lammas this way: “Although in the heat of a Mid-western summer it might be difficult to discern, the festival of Lammas (Aug 1st) marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall.”  Have you ever wondered why it seems like nearly every description of a Pagan sabbats begins with a disclaimer like this, explaining why it’s not really the season that we are celebrating?

I live in the Midwest.  Right now, as I write this, it’s 88 degrees.  It’s just started to get warm in the last few weeks, and it is going to keep getting hotter through August.  We are approaching the height of summer, not the beginning of autumn.  And the “harvest”—which in Indiana means corn and soybeans—won’t be for a couple of months still.

So where does all this Lughnasadh autumn harvest talk come from?  It’s not true for the Midwest, or for Cascadia, or for Paganistan, or for the Bay Area (which has its own microclimate), or for any other place that I know of where there is a large Pagan population.  Maybe it’s accurate for the British Isles, but the majority of Pagans live outside the U.K.  Seriously, how long are we going to keep pretending that that we live in the same climate as Gerald Gardner did?

Trying to Make the Wheel Turn the Seasons

If I went to a public Pagan ritual this weekend, most likely someone would give a little homily about the meaning of the day.  They would begin by explaining the meaning of the names “Lughnasadh” or “Lammas”, either etymologically or historically, and then explain how Lughnasadh is about sacrifice or some other harvest analogy.  But the whole process is completely backwards.  Instead of attuning ourselves to the actual cycles of nature, we end up trying to attune ourselves to an artificial cycle derived from a hodgepodge of Celtic lore and rural British customs.  Rather than the seasons turning the Wheel of the Year, we are letting the Wheel turn the seasons.  As a result, every explanation of a Pagan holiday has to begin with a disclaimer about why the holiday doesn’t match up with what our senses are actually telling us.

This is not just a question of flipping the Sabbats on their heads for those in the southern hemisphere.  (It boggles my mind that anybody ever argued about that.)  The fact is that the seasons vary from place to place.  Some places don’t even have four season.  There may be only two or three, or there may be five or six.  Just check out this article by Peregrin Wildoak describing six seasons in Perth, Australia and you can see how ridiculous the traditional Celtic Wheel of the Year would be in that context—no matter which way you flip it.

When I lived in northwest Brazil for two years, I experienced living in a place that didn’t have the four seasons I was familiar with for the first time in my life.  There were only two seasons: “summer”—which was really hot—and “winter”—which was really wet.  And they weren’t even symmetrical: “summer” ran June through February and “winter” ran March through May.  Not surprisingly, Christmas was virtually non-existent (at least compared to the U.S.).  I can’t tell you how ridiculous it felt trying to celebrate Christmas around the summer solstice when the temperatures averaged in the 90s,   The big holidays were Carnival, usually in February, and the festivals of St. John the Baptist and St. Peter in June—which corresponded with the beginning and end of summer.  If I lived in Brazil, I would need a completely different Wheel of the Year and a completely different mythology to match it.

(Dis-)Connecting With Nature

It’s not just that our Pagan holidays are anachronistic.  I think this is a symptom of a larger problem in Paganism.  Standing indoors on February 2 in the Midwest and pretending it’s spring isn’t just wishful thinking.  Every year we remark how silly it is, but we still do it.  It reflects how we have lost touch with nature—which is doubly tragic for those of us who profess to practice an earth-centered religion.

Too often, it seems to me, our Pagan rituals are escapist.  We try to impose a ideal order onto a messy nature.  Rather than going outside and touching the very real earth and breathing the very real air, we gather inside, and stand with our backs to the world (literally and figuratively), imagining Platonic elements which bear little if any connection to the real elements.  Rather than listening to the powers of the places where we live, the “gods” of here and now, we fascinate ourselves with deities from far away places and long ago times.

Too often I think our Pagan rituals are what Barbara Walker describes as a “retreat from a troublesome reality into a world of pure symbol.”  “However difficult, uncontrollable or indifferent the external universe may seem,” writes Walker, “symbolism is manipulable and so provides at least the illusion of comfort.”  The value of symbols is that we can use them to connect to the immensities of nature that may otherwise elude us.  But when we use symbols to reduce our experience to a formula, the formula can end up supplanting the experience.  Then the symbols become barriers, rather then vehicles, for connecting with nature.

Celebrating the Summer Thermistice

So this August 1st, I suggest we forget everything we have heard about Lughnasadh or Lammas.  Instead of treading that well-worn path, let’s forget about Celtic myths from long ago and the agricultural customs of 18th century English peasants.  Forget even the words “Lughnasadh” or “Lammas”.  Instead, go outside.  Look.  Listen.  Breathe in and breathe out.  Bend down and touch the earth.  And then ask what the world is telling you.  Listen for what calls to you.  Discover what needs to be celebrated, or what needs to be mourned.

And if the season still speaks to you of harvest or sacrifice or making bread, then so be it.  But if not, don’t force it.  Maybe it speaks to you of the pregnant belly of the Mama or of a consuming fire.  Maybe it speaks of passionate lovemaking or memories of sleeping under the stars.  Maybe it speaks of parched grasses or of scorching sand and the cool waves of the ocean rolling onto the beach.  Whatever calls to you, focus on that and create your own Pagan holy day.  And don’t worry about what to call it until you have figured out what it means first.  Then, once you know why your celebrating, you can find an appropriate name and, if you like, an appropriate myth.

Or maybe this weekend isn’t even the right time.  After all, the midpoint between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox (the thermistice) doesn’t fall on August 1st, but a week later on August 7th this year). Or maybe, rather than choosing the day arbitrarily, you should wait for a particularly scorching day to celebrate the thermistice, or wait for your tomatoes to ripen or your raspberry bushes to become heavy with fruit, or for some other sign from the world around you.

Looking to the Landscape

Emma Restall Orr writes, in Living Druidry, that the word “pagan” with a small “p” describes those who “look to the landscape, the environment, the ecology of a place, nature herself, for guidance in every aspect of their lives”, while “Pagan” with a capital “P” describes those “for whom that ancient wordless book of lore, nature, is utterly sacred,” and for whom love of nature has become our spirituality.  Thus, Orr writes, Pagans “listen more carefully, tread more softly, and celebrate with more exuberance.”  This is not everyone’s definition.  But if it resonates at all with us, then it behooves us to ask whether our high holy days reflect the Pagan spirit which Orr describes.  Are we really looking to the landscape?  Are we really listening more closely?  When we want to know the meaning of our holy days, do we look in a book or do we look to the “wordless book of nature”?

39 thoughts on “Why I’m Boycotting Lughnasadh Again

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  1. Well said. Such strict adherence to doctrine does seem to miss the point of the actual celebrations. Are there even many Pagan corn farmers? I think your idea of observing a harvest of your own would have much more meaning.

  2. This is an excellent article. I’ve been stumped on home environment vs. my tradition for years now. It would take a lot of work to reconsider correspondences and the Wheel of the Year so they’re in line with my current life. But it would be worth doing.

  3. That is exactly why I went out and made a whole new “year wheel” that actually reflected the seasons around the world. There is a Southern Hemisphere Year Wheel – Australis Kalendar, and a Northern Hemisphere Year Wheel – Borealis Kalendar, and the combination for a global year wheel – Globus Kalendar / Pandion. And it ended up working out wonderfully – being finally able to have a calendar that fit with the environment – instead of one that imposed arbitrary ideas onto the world (read, “Cultural Quandary of the Earth’s Civil Calendar” for more on that).

    “Pandion / Globus Kalendar – A Global Nature Based Calendar”
    https://canadianmutt.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/a-saegoahs-kalendar/

  4. If you think you have it bad, try being a Kemetic – we have only three seasons! 🙂 Seriously, I’m reading this because cardsandfeather reblogged it, and by reading it, I have encountered new things to think about, so thank you.

  5. Here in central Indiana the tomatoes in my garden are just coming ripe. The Ocracoke is just starting to produce. The green beans and squash are hitting their peak. Limassol beans, melons and a slew of others will be ready in another couple weeks.

    In the forest the locust and tulip populars are starting to loose their leaves. The walnut trees will be next. The chanterelle season is winding down and the honey mushrooms are starting. The Grape vines are dark green and ragged, not the fresh lime green they’ve been all spring and summer.

    I don’t know about Brazil or etc but here if you can’t tell it’s the end of summer and the beginning of fall you’re not really paying attention

    1. >”… just coming ripe … starting to produce … hitting their peak … ready in another couple weeks …”

      That sounds like the peak of summer, not the end of summer to me.

      1. Well … no. Things grow in the summer. They come ripe and start to die at the beginning of fall (also, that’s when we harvest them). The peak of summer was … well, back at the solstice. The season has passed and the next one is beginning.

          1. Go out in your garden. Go walk in the woods. Look carefully. Leaves are coming down. Plants that have been vibrant and vivid all season are fading. Yes, it’s just beginning. It starts now and accelerates through Samhain.

            Noticing this stuff is what being tuned to the seasons means.

              1. The peak was the solstice so long as you’re in the northern hemisphere. The days have been getting shorter since then. The leaves weren’t falling then. Tomatoes and etc weren’t ripe then (and we weren’t harvesting them).

                1. The seasonal lag refers to *air temperature* not season. Please don’t reduce the concept of season to a simple matter of air temperature.

                2. Nor should it be reduced to a “simple matter” of the length of the day. The official start of summer in the U.S. is the summer solstice, which makes Lughnasadh the height of summer and the equinox the start of autumn. That is consistent with my own experience living in northern and southern Indiana, as well as elsewhere in the Midwest.

    2. Here is New Mexico Lammas is the height of the monsoon season. I don’t get the end of summer feeling until early September. That’s when the green chile harvest comes in, and the winds start picking up. Mabon feels more like the Summer’s last stand, and less like fall. Here the summer flowers are still in bloom, and the trees’ leaves are still green late September. It doesn’t start looking like fall until mid October.

        1. It’s been a while since I’ve lived somewhere with more traditional seasons. I have forgotten whether or not the leaves have started to turn by the equinox farther north. Here late September the monsoons are dying out and the landscape is still rather lush and green (by desert standards). So breaking out the fall leaf imagery is a little odd.

  6. What does the ‘official start of summer’ have to do with this conversation?

    I have already pointed out the signs of the season change. Leaves are falling from the trees on Aug 1 in central and southern IN. Summer crops are ripe and ready to harvest and it’s time to plant fall crops. The fall nectar flow is about to start. If you’re just now noticing that summer has started you’ve missed out.

        1. Well, nothing is harvestable in my garden. We planted late due to the prolonged cold season. But surely you can see the problem with measuring the season thusly. Or maybe you think the whole state should follow what’s happening in your private garden.

          1. “…maybe you think the whole state should follow what’s happening in your private garden.”

            This is disingenuous. I have given multiple reasons why Lammas, as traditionally understood, is perfectly appropriate for 1 Aug in IN. You’ve responded with evasion and irrelevancy (and you’re the only person in this conversation who’s brought up their own private garden).

            1. Hmmm, I assumed you were talking about the vegetables in your own garden.

              It seems to me you are really stretching the natural facts of the region to fit a “traditional” pattern, which was really inspired by a different climate.

  7. Thanks John! Enjoyed reading this today as I sat on a bale of fresh straw, enjoying grilled sweet corn from a local farm’s first harvest, here in Wisconsin. Enjoy your boycott! 😆

  8. December 25th isn’t when Jesus was born either… We celebrate seasons, not just days, and the practicality of holding a public celebration of something/anything deems that we try to get it as close to the roots from whence it came. What we do in our private practices may be an entirely different matter. The “Celtic Traditions” have only two halves of the year. Midsummer was the peak of the lighter half, and the very trackable and inevitable decline of the light. In contemporary times the Summer Solstice is considered the first day of summer – this is secular. By August, (here in the midwest) the actual blooming, growing season is over. The lush green verdancy of summer has given way to the ashy green of dying vines and leaves. Now is the ripening and harvesting – ripening is an indicative part of the dying process. If you’re not employing those traditions that’s fine but, there’s no need to imply they should be boycotted by ones who do – and who resonate with them.

  9. Just came across this blog from Wild Hunt. Very nice. Try doing Imbolc or Charming of the Plow in Northern Maine according to the calendar……

  10. Thank you, I never understood this june “midsummer” and early august “fall” either. Yes days are shorter, but you can’t really see and feel it before late august. Now is a time of lazy hot days, barbecues in warm starry nights, and sometimes storms : plain old summer.
    As for the harvest… what harvest?
    In the garden it can go from mid-spring (radish, first leafy greens) to late fall and even winter (cardoon, cabbage, and corn salad can stand the first frosts and even snow). So it makes no sense to me to choose one specific crop, just because that’s the nearest to an arbitrary day, to be “the first harvest”.
    And in commercial agriculture, it really depends where you’re living and what’s the main crop. Where I grew up that’s lentils (harvest in early to mid-september), where I live now it’s grapes (for wine, won’t be ready before mid-september), pears and apples (late august to november, depending on the cultivar)… So yeah, the equinox really feels like fall and harvest to me, early August doesn’t.

  11. Stop calling it Lughnasadh when you mean Lammas. They take place at the same time because of how neopaganism and wiccans borrow from celtic (specifically Irish) traditions, but Lughnasadh is very specifically an Irish holiday celebrated by Irish polytheists and actual real Irish people from Ireland, despite your assumptions that apparently we no longer celebrate our cultural holidays. I get your discontent with your own practice and holidays and your explanation makes sense, but the rudeness and derision you exude towards Irish traditions that are still practiced by many is completely unnecessary.

  12. This is certainly interesting. I never really felt connected to the Sabbats, although I always celebrate Yule. that’s just my thing. This piece has given me a new way to look at things, so thank you.

  13. A very interesting point of view and one I would subscribe to were I in your country. As it is I’m in England but you do your thing as to me it makes perfect sense. A good piece of writing indeed.

  14. I’ve always felt this way too. Imbolc and Lammas just don’t match up for me. I live in Eastern Ontario in Canada so Imbolc falls in mid winter and as for summer, June 21 may be the longest day but summer has barely gotten started here. We don’t even care plant seeds outside before May 24 weekend for fear of frost. August is Midsummer for us.

    The way me and other local pagans celebrate is actually by honouring the actual seasons around us. So for Imbolc we do Lupercalia- we call on Pan to come and “stimulate” the Earth to wake up and get rid of the 6 ft of snow that we have in Feb. Ostara is more like Imbolc, because spring actually is actually in view. Beltane we celebrate to first visual stirring of spring. Lammas is a midsummer Fest, Mabon is first harvest, I do Canadian Thanksgiving as second harvest(we celebrate thanksgiving the second weekend of Oct). Samhain and Yule match us fine for us though.

    In all honesty to perfectly match all the seasons up, we’d have to smush most of them between May and Oct. Then create a bunch of new Winter ones for Nov-April.

  15. I wonder if we Aussies have an advantage in a way. Because we’re forced to adjust things simply for the southern hemisphere it’s that much easier to tweek it further for local conditions. I know a few who do this.

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