The village where my grandparents lived celebrated Lúnastal with a street carnival and parade each August 1st. There would be corn dolls and masks and headdresses made of braided wheat straw, a king and queen and horses. It was a perfect amalgamation of different celebrations of this quarter day festival.
August 1st, or the evening of July 31st, as the Celtic day begins at sundown, falls midway between Summer solstice and Autumn equinox, a quarter day in the Celtic calendar. It officially marks the beginning of the harvest season, and a return from the shielings of summer pasture. The ‘corn’ (oats, barley or wheat) is being cut and gathered into sheaves. The first farmer to gather his field will leave the last sheaf for the cailleach. Traditionally this sheaf would be carried from field to field and onto the next farmer ready to harvest and so on until the last farmer and his last field. It would then become the responsibility of this farmer to host and care for the cailleach’s sheaf until the following Spring when it would be ploughed back into the land. While this sounds like an honour, it wasn’t and there was a bit of a race to not be the last farmer to harvest: housing the cailleach overwinter wasn’t considered a lucky task. Maybe she liked cold winds too much and would invite them through the chinks in the thatch and down the chimney.
As the wheat or oats or barley was thrashed and the grain stored, dolls would be made from the straw and kept as good luck talismans in the grain silos, barns or in homes. They would also be presented as gifts to girls by would be suitors. This was the time too to make Rowan crosses tied with red thread or wool and placed in windows or doorways or hung by chimneys to keep the occupants safe from harm.
As with any change, this was a time to be on guard against malignant forces and there were several sainings or protections associated with Lúnastal. It was not a fire festival, instead water was used and horses, cattle and sheep were driven into the sea or a loch to cleanse them and protect them from harm for the coming months.
The women and children were returning from summer pastures (the shielings) and so it was a time to celebrate the reunion of families, and form new relationships. Lúnastal was the time for wedding fairs when couples would be bound together in hand fasting rituals which could last for the winter or for longer.
Lúnastal is considered to be the beginning of the harvest season, yet it’s true that cutting the grain can begin earlier, as can the harvest of some fruits. I think though that that’s too close a view. I think Lúnastal encompasses bounty. Harvest has started and this is the time for it to pick up speed. More importantly the women and children are back from the shielings and this is a time for harvest of a different sort. The flirtations or promises that were made at Beltane can now be fulfilled as families and couples are reunited for the winter. The young lambs that left in the Spring are now returning fully grown, children too will be older and wiser. Children move out from the company and protection of their mothers, sisters and aunts and back into the company of the men. There’s a special fresh cheese prepared during the last days of the shielings which serves as a magical protection for the children as they return home.
The harvest season will last now, in one form or another until Samhain. It’s usually a beautiful time of the year in Scotland and Ireland, this perhaps is the richest of the quarters with harvest coming in and families reunited.
There are other customs and thoughts around Lughansdah, in Ireland it is associated with the celebration of Lugh. Remnants of this can be seen in other parts too; in South Queensferry the Burry Man is thought of as a harvest spirit. Covered head to foot in the seed pods of the Burdock, supported by two walking sticks festooned with ribbons and flowers and accompanied by two stewards he parades through town and is offered food and drink (mostly drink) before being thrown in the sea. Is he an offering to the harvest, or is he a representation of the Green Man or Jack-in-the-pulpit, or is he Lugh himself? Why is he symbolically drowned? Water was associated with death, why would a man covered in fruit be drowned at the beginning of the harvest? There are so many of our old traditions that have been lost or changed through time. To look for the feeling or idea behind the festival is perhaps the most important aspect.
As a child, celebrating Lúnastal was a magical experience. It was a small weavers village, a normally quiet place of low stone cottages in a gentle valley. There were always whispered comments about the village having an active coven, I wonder now if the Lúnastal celebration went deeper than the costumes and harvest table. It’s a sad thing that ceremonies celebrating nature and the seasonal cycle can become a tool to scare children with stories of witches. I hope, I believe that we are finally moving out of this shadow.
Celebrating Lúnastal today can be as simple as preparing a harvest loaf filled with freshly picked herbs or berries from the garden. And an appreciation of the seasonal cycles and the people who work the land. What plans or seeds did you sow at Beltane, and what harvest are you reaping from them?