The ancient Celtic calendar has four festival days: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. Lughnasadh falls on August 1 and marks the transition from Summer to Autumn as well as the beginning of harvest season. Concidentally, “Lughnasadh” is the modern Irish word for the month of August.
The ancient Celts marked the seasons with four festivals. Imbolc (February 1) was the first day of spring, a time of rebirth after the long winter. Beltane (May 1) was the first day of summer and a time of planting and fertility. Lughnasadh (August 1) began the harvest and transition from summer to autumn, and Samhain (October 31) was the beginning of the darkest half of the year and the time when the spirits could most easily cross the “veil” between the physical and spiritual realms. Each festival was marked by unique celebrations, usually involving dancing and feasting, as well as offerings to appease the gods and goddesses.
The Origins of Lughnasadh
Lughnasadh was begun by the Irish god Lugh, who has been variously described as the sun god, the storm god, or the sky god. He began the festival as a feast and funeral games to honor his mother Tailtiu, an earth goddess who died from exhaustion clearing Ireland for agriculture. Lugh was a member of the Tuatha De Danann, or “tribe of the gods”, the main deities of pre-Christian Ireland.
Historically, Lughnasadh was widely celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man on August 1, which falls approximately halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Over time, the celebrations shifted to the Sunday nearest to August 1.
Customs and Celebrations
Traditional Lughnasadh celebrations involved athletic contests, feasting, trading and matchmaking. In terms of matchmaking, this was a time when trial marriages would take place, with the couple pledged to each other for a year and one day. At the end of this period, the marriage could become permanent or be ended without adverse consequences.
The festival also had religious aspects to it. Celebrants visited holy wells, climbed sacred mountains and conducted ceremonies offering the first of the corn. Feasting on the newly harvested food, particularly bilberries, was common. Because of this, Lughnasadh is sometimes referred to as “Bilberry Sunday”.
Lughnasadh customs continued until the 20th century. The custom of climbing hills and mountains, however, has become more of a Christian pilgrimage. On “Reek Sunday”, the last Sunday in July, pilgrims climb to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo.