Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Challenge of Lughnasa

Being a reconstructionist parent offers many challenges and one of the most complex may be celebrating Lughnasa.

Lughnasa is one of the four Irish fire festivals and is generally celebrated on August 1st. The word itself means the assembly of Lugh, and is often said to commemorate the funeral games of Lugh’s foster mother Tailtiu. Traditionally the holiday may have lasted for more than a single day, possibly even several weeks, and marked the beginning of the harvest season. Lughnasa was a time of celebration for the entire community when everyone would gather at local sacred sites to celebrate with story telling, music, athletic competitions which could include anything from games of skill or strength to races, decorating wells and standing stones, marriages, divination and feasting. Reaching the sacred site was intended to be a challenge, and might involve travelling to the seashore, a hilltop, mountaintop, or river. Particular emphasis was placed on the preparation of foods related to the new harvest, especially the first fruits of the season. In very modern times the potato is usually the main harvested item prepared, but older sources often refer to corn as and it’s preparation, although corn too is not a native crop; it’s likely the original featured food would have been an oat or wheat, or similar grain product, that could be used in the bread or porridge dishes that are ubiquitously talked about in reference to Lughnasa.

Speaking of food, that is one of the first and most basic ways to celebrate and to include the kids. One of the traditional foods, albeit from the Christian period, that was mentioned in several sources is the Barm Brac, a type of bread made with fruit; most recipes use non-native dried fruit but since gathering fresh berries is another Lughnasa tradition it would be better to use fresh berries. Porridge is another food that is mentioned as traditional. I tend to go with oat based bread or porridge since my youngest daughter cannot have any wheat products due to a gluten sensitivity, but someone seeking other traditional cereals could use wheat or barley flour. In any of these cases it would be perfect to take the children out to gather fresh berries if they grow locally, or if you can grow your own, and then have them help you cook the chosen food.

So, what makes this holy day so challenging to a parent? Partially it is the heavy emphasis on community in a time when most of us have little real world community beyond our families. Unlike Samhain, Imbolc, and Beltaine which are all easily celebrated within the family unit Lughnasa is meant to be celebrated on a much larger scale. This is an immediate conundrum for the recon pagan parent that is not easily solved. One possible solution is to expand a portion of the day’s festivities beyond your recon family and include others; perhaps non-recon pagans or possibly a non-religious picnic that include many of the elements of Lughnasa. The religious celebration could be done privately before or after, but gathering friends and family for a picnic with games would still preserve some aspects of the other Lughnasa traditions. Neither of these is ideal, but they do at least attempt to include the important social aspects of the holiday.

Another challenge for the recon parent – one that I am particularly struggling with this year – is how to include the children in athletic games in ways that they will find fun but that are age appropriate. The foot races and swimming races of Lughnasa tradition are meant for adults (and are often dangerous) and are hard to tailor to a wide age range of children, and horse racing would exclude the youngest children, at best. My own daughters are 3 and 7 so the difference between them is huge when it comes to physical ability. How do I find athletic games that are challenging but still fun for both of them? Moving away from the traditional practices but keeping the spirit of the holiday I have decided to include the entire family in relay races, so that the adults can balance out the children’s abilities while still letting the kids have fun. I also settled on a bean bag toss that could be modified for each age group, with different levels of difficulty, and – in honor of the old stories of Lugh outwitting his rival Crom Dubh – on a couple trivia games and a scavenger hunt.

This year’s Lughnasa will be something of an experiment, as we try to find new ways to celebrate that are more family friendly. We don’t live in a time or place where we could join our entire town in celebrating and enjoy watching the athletic games from the sidelines but we still want to celebrate in a genuine way. So on Lughnasa my family will hike to a local place that we feel is sacred, we will bring Barm Brac we have cooked with local berries we gathered, we will sing, make music, and tell stories with whomever of our friends decide to join us and we will have our own types of games. We will hold a ritual to honor the deities we choose, most likely including Lugh, and possibly Tailtui. The food will be passed out and then we will all walk sun-wise around a fire, or if we don’t have a fire we’ll substitute a candle, and a prayer will be said (this comes from McNeill’s Silver Bough, volume 2) and we will leave some of our food as an offering to the daoine sidhe and to the gods of our rite…and hopefully our children will have fun doing it all.

Danaher, K. (1972). the Year in Ireland: Irish calendar customs. Minneapolis: Mercier Press.
Kondratiev, A. (1998). the Apple Branch: a path to Celtic ritual. New york: Citadel Press.
MacNeill, M. (1962). the Festival of Lughnasa. Dublin: Oxford University Press.
McNeill, F. M. (1959). the Silver Bough, Volume 2: a calendar of Scottish national festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home. Glasgow: Maclellan.

Author: Morgan Daimler
Irish Reconstructionist Parent & Author
Morgan Daimler Amazon Page


  1. I have a large family (nine children ages 19 to 1), so it may be a bit easier for us. We have divided the games into more challenging games for the older participants and fun games for the younger. For older we have had wrestling (get opponent out of a circle), balance-beam tug-o-war (with a stick instead of a rope), foot races, stone throw (using a large landscaping stone), and water bucket relay (move two five-gallon buckets of water back and forth without spilling). For the younger we have had egg toss, egg races, water/sponge race (small empty bucket and one end, large bucket of water at other end; first to fill small bucket with a large sponge wins), foot races, stone throw (with a brick), and the balance beam tug-o-war.

    I have tried scaling the competitions so that all are competing for the same prize, but it didn't work well. This way the older are competing to be named tribal champion and the younger are competing for individual prizes, usually sweets.

    I am considering inviting a family we are close to for the games and feast (ritual is normally before all this anyway). They are not recon, not sure we are for that matter (we are Sinnsreachd; opinions vary on whether we are recon or not), but the mother is pagan.

  2. I think classic games like tug-o-war and three-footed racing are good modern alternatives that help include everyone. Both are games which are based on athletic abilities: strength and agility. My niece's birthday is August 2nd and so I tend to view her party as a sort of fair since there's extended family, feasting, celebrating and games.

    I really like Dáire's ideas as well, lots of good stuff there.