Country Fairs and Harvest Celebrations

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The caber toss is one of many events held at Highland Games during the Lammas season. Image by J&L Images/Stockybyte/Getty Images

Much like Beltane was a time of gathering and celebrating the spring, Lammas has often been the time of year when people in rural areas got together with their neighbors to mark the early harvest. In parts of Europe, and particularly the British Isles, Lammas became the season for country fairs. This was partly because the herds were typically rounded up at the end of the summer, so if you had livestock to sell, a country fair was a great place to find buyers.

You could bring your herds and flocks to town, pen them up for sale or trade, and enjoy some festivities in the process. Although most harvest-themed festivals came later in the year, around Mabon, Lammas was a time when everyone knew the threshing of the grain was taking place. If you had hay or straw to buy or sell, you could do so at the Lammas fair. In addition, the weather at this time of year was usually mild, which made it perfect for traveling to other villages for a celebration.

Quarter Days

Lammas was traditionally known as a Quarter Day in Scotland. This meant that rents were collected, contracts signed, and other legal paperwork filed. These were also the four dates during the year on which servants were traditionally hired, so the country fair often took on the aspect of a job fair -- by networking with other servants and house managers, one could possibly attend a fair looking for work, and end the day with an offer of employment in a landowner's home or fields.

First Fruits

In France, the last week of July was a time when the first fruits of the harvest were blessed. Farmers who had orchards brought baskets of their produce to church as a tithe, and a priest consecrated the offering. The apples, cherries, peaches and more were distributed then among the congregation.

This isn't exclusive to Christianity, however; it was common in early Greek and Roman religions to make offerings of the first fruits at the temple of one's patron god. This fruit was often used as a source of income for the temple priests.

Highland Games

In Scotland, Lammastide was sometimes the season in which mock battles and warrior games were played. British rulers tried to prevent the Scots from engaging in such things, believing it would encourage rebellion and disloyalty to the crown. During the eighteenth century, as mass amounts of emigrants left Scotland for other shores, Highland Games gradually gained popularity in the United States. Today, dozens of games are held throughout the summer months, and include such "heavy" events as the caber toss, the hammer throw, and sword dancing.

Bilberry Sunday

In parts of Ireland, the first Sunday in August is a day when it is custom to climb the local hills and mountains to pick berries. Tradition held that if lots of bilberries were gathered, it meant that the rest of the year's harvest would be a bountiful one. In some cases, just like at Beltane, berry-picking was an excuse to sneak off into the woods with a lover. Young men plaited fruit and vines into bracelets and crowns for their ladies.

Afterwards, the best berries were eaten at a big fair, complete with singing, dancing, and general merrymaking.

Holy Wells

It became popular to hold country fairs near the site of a holy well. In some parts of England and Wales, the holy well was the destination for religious pilgrims in the summer. Because people were traveling there anyway, it was logical to turn the site into a place for a festival or other celebration. Today, many wells are still dressed with ribbons and filled with offerings during the Lammas season.

Modern Celebrations

Today, in the United States and many other countries, the celebration of the local fair has become an annual event. In rural communities, the fair is a big to-do held typically right before children return to school. Much like the country fairs of days gone by, there are games, competitions, lots of food, and livestock for sale and trade.

Although it's generally only Pagans who observe the tradition of Lammas at this time, the custom of the community fair has survived the centuries.