Lughnasa, Transfiguration, and the Harvest Feast of Mary

August brings us two Feast Days—Transfiguration (August 6) and the Assumption (or Dormition) of the Virgin Mary (August 15). In Gaelic, the word for August is Lunasa; indeed Brien Friel’s acclaimed 1990 play, “Dancing at Lughnasa” (also a movie) takes its name from the Celtic Harvest Festival, Lughnasa, celebrated in August.

August 1 was (and to certain contemporary spiritual practitioners, is) known as a Cross-Quarter Day, halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, and a festival to honor the Celtic deity Lugh. The myth of Lugh is one of my favorites, but today’s focus is on the harvest festival, and retelling his persistent convincing diplomacy to gain admission to the King at Tara must await another occasion.

August 1 marks a season of penitence, when the Irish faithful, often barefoot, climb 2500-feet tall Croagh Patrick (St. Patrick’s Mountain) in honor of St. Patrick’s own reputed forty-day summer fast in the year 441. Nowadays the preferred date to climb is the last Sunday in July.  In this same early August season, the English celebrated Lammas (“loaf-mass”), the festival of the harvested wheat, by bringing a loaf of bread to church to be blessed.

Knowing all this, I will still surprised by the Blessing of the Grapes in the Orthodox Christian tradition for the Feast of the Transfiguration. How pleasant to nibble blessed grapes as I made my way into work. So much essential similarity among so many diverse customs!

And if I am not climbing Croagh Patrick this year, nor fasting a full forty days like St. Patrick, I am at least doing my best to refrain from animal products for fifteen days until Mary’s feast. In the Gaelic, the Feast of the Assumption is known as Lá Fhéile Muire Mór sa bhFómhar—the Feast of Great Mary in the Autumn.[1]

August 1 (or thereabouts)—my friend tells me Lammas proper, the exact astronomical midpoint between the Solstice and the Equinox, was August 7 this year—as a Cross Quarter Day has an additional significance beyond the Harvest celebrations. We have heard of May Day (May 1) as being friendly to faeries, a Midsummer (June 21, solstice) night favorable to Shakespeare’s faieries and romance, and naturally Halloween (Samhain) as being a time when the veil between the worlds is markedly thin. Those familiar with Irish folklore know: all of the astronomical and cross quarter days are said to bear this quality of “thinness”.

 I reflect on the Transfiguration, also celebrated in early August: God broke through the veil of heaven to announce, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”  A little more impressive than the faeries trooping through the countryside to take up their autumn residences.

The heat wave has broken. My tomatoes are proliferating. School is around the corner. Be kind to each other. Autumn is here.

Croagh Patrick Photo by the author. 2003.

Croagh Patrick
Photo by the author. 2003.

God bless Thou Thyself my reaping,

Each ridge, and plain, and field,

Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,

Each ear and handful in the sheaf,

               Each ear and handful in the sheaf.

–Excerpt from a Reaping Blessing, from the Carmina Gadelica.

[1] O’Duinn, Séan. The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint. Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland: The Columba Press, 2004, 157.