It’s the probably not-terribly-ancient festival of bread, Lammas, Hlaf-mas, Loaf Mass. This holiday is possibly an English variant on the Irish first fruits and fair festival of Lughnasadh, but compacted into one day and generally lacking any ritual or narrative. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, churches in East Anglia constructed elaborate displays of breads, grains, and the produce of early autumn. Then there were special masses read which were followed by a feast or at least some distribution of food to the indigent (which was most of the countryside, after two centuries of enclosure). But this church holiday seems to have been a creation of concerned clergy and not an expression of an older rite. There is no story under the display, not even a nominal thanksgiving — which came later in the autumn, during the much more popular English Harvest Home festivals.
In Scotland, there may have been a ritual first harvest that involved the patriarch cutting a chosen sheave and then, on a bonfire kindled near the fields, the women grinding and baking that grain into a bannock or boiling it into a gruel. This is hard to tie to Lammas though, because the principle grains in Scotland are oats and rye which would have been harvested earlier in the summer. Similarly, the wheat that would grow best that far north is the winter red that is planted in autumn and harvested the next spring. But the folklorist, Máire MacNeill, records a Hebridean Feast of the Assumption (15 August) in which this exact ritual is enacted, and she believed it to be a rather common tradition. Because of the 18th century 12-day calendar shift, 15 August would have been the approximate point in the solar year now occupied by the first of August. So the thinking is, if this tradition had antique roots, it would have fallen about on Lammas a few generations before MacNeill made her observations. Unfortunately, there are no other records of this ritual. This may be because MacNeill witnessed a living fossil on its way to extinction, or it may be because it just never was a common tradition. (Until very recently, it was, unfortunately, not uncommon for rural folks to give folklorists what they wanted to see as well as for folklorists to find what they expected to find.)
In Ireland, the first fruits festival is, apart from being more focused on craft and community, not very bread-centric. Where there is a ritual meal, it honors the potato harvest. This communal feast is yet another opportunity to eat colcannon, heavy on mashed potatoes and butter. Traditionally, a household must make a mash of the new potatoes by Lughnasadh or the entire next year will be blighted. This is taken seriously enough that it’s considered good policy to loan a neighbor with late fields enough potatoes to make the mash, or that neighbor will be begging (or worse) in the lean times.
But more often than not, this festival season is marked by treks into the hills for bilberries — and canoodling — and the day this most commonly takes place is the last Sunday in July, Bilberry Sunday or Crom Dubh Sunday. Crom Dubh, the Dark Bent One, is sometimes thought to be a god of the wild lands, an entish sort of being. Paradoxically, this dark god is also sometimes equated with the sun god, Balor, he of the evil eye, the Fomorian grandfather of Lugh, who must be subdued before the land will yield its bounty. Lugh defeats his grandfather, sending a red-hot spear (or sometimes a sling-stone) through the evil eye that, basilisk-like, kills on sight, just before Balor can open his massive eyelid to wield this deadly gaze.
Balor can be thought of as a metaphor for the searing late summer sun. Though sunny days are necessary for ripening and gathering in the harvest, there is a fine line between enough and too much. And the Dog Days sun, Balor’s fierce gaze, often crosses into too much, particularly these days. The land withers under the burning glare. The first cooling storms of early autumn bring welcome moisture for all. And this happens in the North sometime in early August.
However, unfortunately for those who would like timeliness in our ritual year, this fight between Lugh and Balor is not tied to this point in the sun’s cycle. In the stories, the battle takes place in the final stages of the Second Battle of Moytura (Maige Tuired), one of the epic cycles of Irish origin myths. Balor leads the reigning powers of the island, the Fomorians, monstrous beings who come from under land and sea. Lugh manages, through a combination of trickery and prowess, to be temporarily named king of the newcomers, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and must face his mother’s father, Balor. It was predicted that the child of Balor’s daughter would be Balor’s downfall, and Balor did all he could to keep that child from coming into existence and then coming into manhood. But fate and time were not on the side of the Fomorians. Lugh tossed his spear through the evil eye, sending its searing gaze right out the back of Balor’s head, thereby defeating the entire Fomorian army with just one blow.
In any case, in the mythic cycle, this battle is traditionally seen as happening around May Day. But modern mythologists like the autumnal flavor of the metaphor, and there is this Irish festival with Lugh’s name on it that coincides with a first fruits celebration. So… it’s been neatly woven into Lughnasadh and Lammas. Whether this is a “real” tradition or not is immaterial if it works… and I think it does.
I am a gardener, not a farmer. And I’m a gardener in the mountains of the North. So early August is the natural time for me to be celebrating a first fruits festival since all the squashes and beans, nightshades and cucumbers, onions and potatoes are beginning to stream out of the garden beds. This is not a bread mass, but it is a corn festival. Because this is also when corn — maize — is ready for harvest if you like it fresh. If you want it dried, it will be a few more weeks. Or you can just head to the market for masa, I suppose. Whether I grow corn or buy it, I almost always make some variety of corn bread for Lammas. This year, I decided to make muffins with Hatch green chile. I used the canned stuff because I’m rationing my fresh roasted chile, given that my garden is not producing what I’d like to see. (Too bad I can’t make that folklorist thing work…) Anyway, the 4oz cans are a perfect measure for this recipe, and the flavor blends well.
Green Chile Corn Muffins
Wet ingredients 4 eggs, beaten 1 cup yogurt 1/4 cup butter, melted & slightly browned up to 2 cups (1 pint) corn kernels, blanched or thawed frozen a 4oz can Hatch green chile
Dry ingredients 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup corn meal 3 Tbs sugar 2 1/2 tsp baking powder scant tsp salt 1 Tbs powdered sage 1 Tbs thyme 1/2 tsp allspice 1/2 tsp cumin (optional) 1/2 cup dried cranberries
Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. This temperature is important. If your oven runs cool, then set it to whatever it needs to be to make 400°F. I have to use 425°F.
Oil or butter a heavy muffin tin or a cast iron corn-bread finger pan. (Recipe makes 12 normal sized muffins, or 6 big ones; not a good recipe for tiny ones because there is too little matrix.)
Beat together the wet ingredients, adding one at a time and beating well between each addition.
In a separate bowl, combine all the dry ingredients but the cranberries. Stir up well.
Note: If you have blue corn flour, use that. (Also, if you have blue corn flour, send me some…)
If desired, add the cranberries to the dry ingredients and toss to coat the berries.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until just combined. Do not beat it smooth.
Drop 1/4 cup measures into each muffin cup. This recipe should over-fill the cups so you get lots of yummy muffin-top edge-space.
Bake in a 400°F oven for 25 minutes. (This concert by Ólafur Arnalds at KEXP Radio in Seattle is about the perfect timing.)
When a toothpick inserted in the muffin comes out clean and the muffin tops are golden brown, they are done.
Let them cool for 5 minutes in the pan. Then remove to a platter and let them cool the rest of the way. If you don’t eat them first…
This recipe freezes very well. So it’s a great way to store the corn harvest. Put 6 muffins in a gallon freezer bag, remove as much air from the bag as you can, and place in the freezer. If you make many batches at once (the way I normally do), then let the muffins freeze solid before you stack up the bags. (Otherwise, they turn into sad little deformed lumps… still tasty, but…)
Word of warning: these muffins are crumbly. Given half a chance, they will fall apart. Have a fork ready.
You do not need butter, but a bit of apple butter makes them sublime.
From the Book Cellar
If you love folklore, Máire MacNeill’s Festival of Lughnasa (Folklore of Ireland Council, 2008 reprint edition, sadly already out of print) is well worth the hefty investment in both finding and reading the book.
Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996) is an invaluable resource for cutting through all the obfuscation around traditions and ritual. I wish he would make another such book for North America, though he would probably think himself not up to the task. (I’m pretty sure he is.)
A list of kids’ books for this time of year (many centered on the John Barleycorn scarecrow figure):
Canticle of the Sun, A hymn of Saint Francis of Assisi, illustrated by Fiona French (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2006).
Seamus McNamus, the Goat Who Would Be King, written by Rob Kurtz, illustrated by Mike Lester (Worthwhile Books, 2009).
Sun Bread, written and illustrated by Elisa Kleven (Puffin Books, 2001).
The Scarecrow’s Hat, written and illustrated by Ken Brown (Peachtree Publishers, 2001).
The Little Scarecrow Boy, written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by David Diaz (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998).
Scarecrow, written by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Lauren Stringer (Voyager Books, 1998).
The Scarecrow’s Dance, written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2009).
Raising Yoder’s Barn, written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Bernie Fuchs (Little, Brown & Company, 1998).
©Elizabeth Anker 2022