Lammas Tide & Harvest Home
The Festival of the First Fruits
by Robert Newland.
The 1st August is the ancient festival of Lammas Tide, which traditionally is the start of the harvest calendar: - A time of giving thanks to mother nature for all her fruits and reaping what has been sown.
The Celts originally called it “Lugnasad” and would celebrate by honouring Lugh, the sun God; however, the Saxons renamed the festival “hlaf-maesse” meaning “loaf mass,” which later became Lammas, as we know it today. Traditionally it was the day when the first new grain was milled and baked into small loaves of bread, which were offered on the altar as thanks giving for the first fruits of the harvest.
Before modern mechanisation it was considered imperative to gather in the harvest as quickly as possible in case the weather took a turn for the worse and ruined the crop. Whole farming communities would stop everything to help with the harvest, knowing that on it depended their survival in the coming winter. Even after the sun had set they would carry on working by the light of the harvest moon until the harvest was home. One old weather lore rhyme says:
If the moon show a silver shield,
Be not afraid to reap your field;
But if she rises haloed round,
Soon we’ll tread on deluged ground.
Down through the ages Lammas and Harvest Home have acquired numerous customs. It was once common for the farms of West Dorset to practice the custom of “Crying the Neck” or “Crying the Mare” as it was sometimes called. This custom came out of the belief that a harvest spirit or corn goddess dwelt in the crop and that as the reapers cut the corn the spirit was forced to retreat into the ever-dwindling remainder. No one wished to be the one who destroyed her last refuge, and so that she couldn’t know whose hand had cut the stalks, the labourers would throw their sickles at the last strands of wheat. Once cut the last ears of wheat were gathered into a carefully shaped bundle known as the “Neck” or “Mare” and held aloft, and then all present would raise the harvest shout. (A poetic ditty that often varied from farm to farm).
Well a plowed! Well a-sowed!
We’ve reaped! And we’ve mowed!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Well a-cut! Well a-bound!
Well a-zot upon the ground!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
It was often part of the custom for one of the younger men to seize the Neck and run as fast as he could to the farmhouse. There one of the young farm girls would stand on guard with a pail of water, which she would throw over him as he arrived, breathless, at the door. But if he could manage to elude her and get into the house dry, then he could claim the right to kiss her.
With the reaping ended, the last sheaf would often be fashioned into a Corn Dolly, which was meant to represent the corn goddess. The figure was usually, though not always, made in human form; it could be a spiral pyramid, a miniature sheaf, or an intricate design of plaits and hanging wheat ears. Other radical designs such as animals, agriculture implements like scythes and shepherd crooks or objects with a Christian significance like bells or a cross were common too.
In the fields the dry corn piled up in stooks would then be loaded on to the wagons and taken to the barns for storage ready for threshing. The final wagon or “Hock Cart” as it was called would be brought home with great ceremony, music and joyous celebration. In honour of the corn goddess, the cart would be decorated with flowers and scarlet ribbons and the horses that drew it would have garlands of corn around their necks. Sometimes the youngest girl over the age of seven would be appointed as the “Corn Maiden.” She would have the honour to ride upon the Hock Cart festooned with flowers, dressed in a straw bonnet and white dress with a yellow sash around the waist. High above her placed at the very top of the corn heap would be the garlanded Corn Dolly herself, the centrepiece of the Harvest Home celebrations.
Many village communities kept their Corn Dolly until Plough Monday (the first Monday after 12th January) when after a procession around the fields, they would ceremoniously intern her into the first furrow, ready to work her necessary magic for the next coming harvest.
The one harvest custom of which most of us are familiar with is the well-liked Church Harvest Festival. It began in 1843, when the Revd R.S. Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, revived in that parish (though later in the season) the ancient service of Lammas, which had long faded from the Church’s liturgy. From that beginning, the custom spread and is now an established part of the liturgical year.
For many people today the harvest seems remote and age-old customs irrelevant. Yet Lammas Tide can still serve as a meaningful time to count your blessings and be grateful for what you have.