Lammas Day is celebrated annually on August 1 in some Northern Hemisphere countries.(It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “loaf-mass”), the festival of the wheat harvest, and is the first harvest festival of the year. On this day it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the new crop, which began to be harvested at Lammastide. The loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it might be employed afterwards to work magic: a book of Anglo-Saxon charms directed that the lammas bread be broken into four bits, which were to be placed at the four corners of the barn, to protect the garnered grain.
In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of August. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called “the feast of first fruits”. The blessing of first fruits was performed annually in both the Eastern and Western Churches on the first or the sixth of August (the latter being the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ). Lammas has coincided with the feast of St. Peter in Chains, commemorating St. Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison, but in the liturgical reform of 1969, the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori was transferred to this day, the day of St. Alphonsus’ death.
In medieval times the feast was sometimes known in England and Scotland as the “Gule of August”, some suggest the meaning of “gule” is an Anglicisation of Gŵyl Awst, the Welsh name of the “feast of August. Some suggest it was originally known as Lamb-mass, under the undocumented supposition that tenants of the Cathedral of York, dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula, of which this is the feast, which required people to bring a live lamb to the church,because Lambs then grew out of season hence “LAMB + MASS”.
For many villeins, the wheat must have run low in the days before Lammas, and the new harvest began a season of plenty, of hard work and company in the fields, reaping in teams. Thus there was a spirit of celebratory play. In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after Midsummer. At the end of hay-making a sheep would be loosed in the meadow among the mowers, for him to keep who could catch it.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1.3.19) it is observed of Juliet, “Come Lammas Eve at night shall she [Juliet] be fourteen.” Since Juliet was born Lammas eve, she came before the harvest festival, which is significant since her life ended before she could reap what she had sown and enjoy the bounty of the harvest, in this case full consummation and enjoyment of her love with Romeo.
William Hone speaks in The Every-Day Book (1838) of a later festive Lammas day sport common among Scottish farmers near Edinburgh. He says that they “build towers…leaving a hole for a flag-pole in the centre so that they may raise their colours.” When the flags over the many peat-constructed towers were raised, farmers would go to others’ towers and attempt to “level them to the ground.” A successful attempt would bring great praise. However, people were allowed to defend their towers, and so everyone was provided with a “tooting-horn” to alert nearby country folk of the impending attack and the battle would turn into a “brawl.” At the day’s end, races were held, with prizes given to the townspeople.