Saturday 1 August 2015


That would be today!  1st of August is Lammas Day. The word Lammas comes from olde English Hlaf-mas - loaf mass - because the corn harvest should by then have produced enough grain to start another year of baking fresh bread. Various rituals, some pagan some christian some who-knows-what, developed around these lammas loaves.  Lammas is one of the term days of the Scottish legal calendar when rents fell due and contracts could be made. The other term days are Candlemas (Groundhog day, 2nd Feb), Whitsun (Pentecost 7th Sunday after Easter, now fixed to 15th May), and Martinmas (St Martin's Day, 11th November).  These agree only not-very-well with the Irish/Celtic/Wiccan quarter days of Imbolc in Feb, Beltaine in May, Lughnasa in Aug and Samhain in Nov; all conveniently on the first of the month and none of them floating about the calendar because of adherence to both [irreconcilable] lunar and solar cycles. Samhain is celebrated with some gusto on its eve, the last night of October aka Hallowe'en. Because a lot of people would come into town on these days they evolved into hiring fairs when agricultural labours would contract themselves to a farmer for a fixed term at agreed wages.  In Ulster these fairs were typically held twice a year at Beltaine in May and Samhain in November, when there was a bit of a lull in agri-activity between planting and harvest. Lammas Fair was also celebrated in certain towns across The North like Ballycastle, Co Antrim, immortalised in song by Ottilie Patterson on her album Ottilie's Irish Night. This presentation of Oirish culture was devastatingly satirised by Peter Sellers in his Pat O'Shaughnessy & his men of shamrock. We had both versions on vinyl albums growing up in England and they were a key part of the cultural glue in our un-anchored family.

The English set up their Quarter Days catty-corner more or less matching equinoxes and solstices: Lady Day 25 Mar, Midsummer Day 24 Jun, Michaelmas 29 Sep, Christmas 25 Dec.  I say catty-corner because these fall more or less between the Irish festivals and so the latter become known as cross-quarter days. Midsummer Day is, as you see, a bit adrift from the Solstice and is marked by the Feast of St John.  It is one of the few days in the year when you can, as special dispensation for cultural reasons, have a bonfire. These are now exceedingly rare in our part of the country because The Man is believed to record our every movement from geostationary satellites which can track smoke plumes back to their GPS-coordinated origin.  Burning hedgerow brash was much more common 20 years ago but is now supposed to be allowed to mulch down and provide some understorey habitat for wildlife.

I have a loaf of sourdough proving in a warm place even at this moment and will shortly be placing it reverentially in a hot oven.  Lucky me!

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