British traditions: Lammas, sheep racing, and nightgown parades

Lammas is a quiet British church festival that was traditionally celebrated on the first of August, although these days it suffers from moments of inattention and wanders off to whatever Sunday’s closest to the original date. We’re too late for either the right date or the closest Sunday, but we’re not fussy here at Notes and we’re not celebrating anyway, just marveling at the intricacies (that’s a nice word for oddities) of British tradition.

Those of us who aren’t British, if we’ve heard of Lammas at all, never bothered to learn what it is. We saw it mentioned in some novel or other and our eyes hopped over the word, sending our brains a signal that we don’t need to know about this.

Our mine did anyway. I don’t really know about you lot. I only pretend to when I’m writing. For what it’s worth, though, Word Press’s spell check thinks I made the word up. Or that I’m spelling it lamas wrong. 

No one has mentioned Lammas to me in the thirteen years that  I’ve lived in Britain. That’s how quiet a festival it is.

Irrelevant photo: Poppies. They used to grow wild in fields of grain. Here they’ve had considerable encouragement.

But however quiet it may be, it happens in August and this is August. so let’s find out about Lammas. Because that’s what we do here at notes: learn about things we never thought we wanted to know. 

Lammas is an inheritance from the Anglo-Saxons. The word comes from the Early English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you like; same thing, different name) for loaf mass–a church celebration of the first grain that’s been harvested. Or as the British insist on calling the stuff, corn. What I and my fellow Amurricans call corn, they call maize. I’m still need a crib sheet to keep it all straight.

But what Lammas isn’t is at least as important as what it is: It’s a harvest festival, but it’s not the harvest festival: That comes at the end of September. It’s also not a lamb mass, although it sounds enough like one that in the nineteenth century some churches misunderstood their own traditions and, in an effort to go back to their roots, introduced one. In York, farmers who rented their land from the cathedral had to bring a lamb in to be blessed. 

That’s how it was back then. If the landlord said you had to haul a sweet little lamby, all baa-ing and terrified, out of its fields, away from its mama and its flock, and into the cathedral, you brought the poor beast. Your tenancy depended on it.

Yeah, those were the good old days. If the landlord had told you to dress it in a pink tutu, you’d have stayed up all night, trying to get a signal on your phone so you could find a tutu pattern that just might remotely fit a lamb. 

Whoever cleaned the floors after the blessing would have done some blessing of their own–a literal shitload of it. You can be sure that the idea for a lamb mass didn’t come from them.

Then in 1945, a minister started a campaign to revive the loaf mass, along with several other Anglo-Saxon festivals that had dropped out of use. He became the patron saint of all church cleaners.

But Lammas wasn’t just a religious date. British religious and secular life twined around each other for such long time that it’s sometimes hard to separate them. So Lammas was also a day for doing all sorts of secular stuff: paying rent, settling debts, changing jobs and houses. The rents make an intuitive kind of sense: If you harvest your grain and owe part of it to the landlord, everybody involved will want to set a date that falls after the harvest. And if you owe the landlord money, you’re most likely to have some after you’ve sold your grain. Everything else that fell on Lammas, I expect, trotted meekly behind that. 

What do people do on Lammas if they don’t have debts to settle and don’t have to bring a little lamby into the cathedral? Observation says most of them don’t do anything they wouldn’t do on some other day. The tradition’s obscure enough that the link I gave you back at the start of the post is to a newspaper article explaining it to the clueless people whose ancestors (genetic or cultural) once took the date seriously. When a tradition’s in working order, news outlets don’t feel the need to do that.

What people used to do was take a loaf of bread into church to be blessed. It’s nowhere near as messy–or as complicated–as taking a lamb in.

In some parts of the country, people then broke the loaf into four pieces and left one piece in each corner of the barn to protect the harvest. 

From here on, we may be slithering from traditional traditions to modern (or, if you like, made up) traditions: If you feel the need to mark the occasion next year, you can make a bundle of twigs (what could be more fun?) called a besom, or make a doll out of, um, something grainish. If you were in the Americas, you’d use corn husks, but for this you’ll want to use what the British call corn, which has narrower leaves and strikes me as harder to work with, so I can’t give you any guidance. 

You can also bake bread dough into a kind of plaque that that looks like a bundle of grain, an owl, or the–hang on a minute: the corn god? When did Christianity acquire a corn god?

I don’t make this stuff up. The article I linked to mentions one, and if the corn god’s wandered in, it means one of two things: 1, Lammas derives from a much older, pre-Christian celebration, or 2, the modern-day pagans have been busy reclaiming a heritage that, since it was pretty thoroughly erased, they make up as they go along, connecting Lammas with Lugh, a Celtic god whose festival was celebrated around the same time of year. 

Or possibly both 1 and 2. I can’t tell. They may be onto some real connection and they may be mixing up a loaf-mass and a lamb-mass.

The article has a couple of photos of gorgeous bread, along with a couple of recipes in case you have a gift for fancy baking.

Eastborne, Sussex, has a Lammas festival, and you didn’t miss it because it took a break this year. It’ll be back in 2020, with music, drumming, morris dancers (everything comes back to morris dancing sooner or later), and booths selling stuff. Selling stuff is as an essential part of any festival as morris dancing. 

What other traditions does Britain have in August? 

Why the Staithes Nightgown Parade. This year, it’s on August 16, which means you missed it, but  it’s been going on for as long as anyone in the village can remember so you should be able to catch it next year. 

In spite of the name, participants can also wear pajamas, and even bathrobes, but the men will probably be wearing nightgowns. It’s a British thing, straight non-(otherwise)transvestite men wearing what they think are women’s clothes, although I’m prepared to testify that I’m a woman and wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the things they wear. Never mind. They’re happy thinking that they’re dressed like us and none of them have been tempted to raid my closet, so I’m happy too. 

If anyone can explain the whole British cross-dressing thing to me, please do. A reader here once linked it to the time when women weren’t allowed on stage and young men and boys played the women’s roles. It’s a good start at an explanation, but it doesn’t stretch as far as telling us why the tradition escaped the stage, went free range, and is still wandering loose in someone else’s nightgown.

Staithes is a fishing village and the event raises money for the lifeboats, and no one can object to raising money for the lifeboats.

The Moffat Sheep Races were canceled in 2017 after 80,000 people signed a petition saying it was cruel to the animals. 

Where were all those people when those lambs were being hauled into church? They hadn’t been born yet, that’s where they were, so they get a pass on this one.

The sheep raced with knitted jockeys fastened on their backs, and in the video I watched they were being chased by a boy with a checked shirt on his. I can’t be sure, but the boy seemed to be having more fun than the sheep.

72 thoughts on “British traditions: Lammas, sheep racing, and nightgown parades

  1. I think the Moffat steeplechase was a bit rubbish for the sheep in the video, as it’s clear that jumping over logs isn’t something they are particularly in to (although I notice one or two of them are very good at random leaping on the stop). Sadly, most people dont care about the treatment of farm animals and happily eat them (I don’t by the way) and yet they get all upset at things like this. I’d rather 80,000 people signed a petition about the horrible lives of battery, chickens, breeding sows or the very short life of male calves. Yes, the Victorians were very good at “rebooting” things like festivals. I always thought Lammas was more of a pagan thing (I had pagan friends at Uni).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As to Christians having corn gods, Christians have lots of gods, they just call them patron saints. In this case I would guess Isidore the Laborer, patron saint of farmers. We have farms around here, I think it’s time for a new patron saint, he seems to be asleep on the job.


  3. Nice tradition. The loaf part not the lamb part. In the Middle Ages they had festivals often. Either they liked to party and dance, liked to have days off, or wanted an excuse to set up booths and sell stuff I don’t know. Maybe all three, plus liking to play music and dance. I agree with them, we need more cheerful festivals with music and dancing and selling stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The short version of how the two versions of Lammas – the Pagan version, and the Christian version – got merged, is that they were both happening at some point during harvest time back when people paid more attention to what the world was telling us about what season it was at the moment, and most people didn’t actually own a calender. Then someone got the bright idea to give it a fixed date, so everyone knew when they were supposed to celebrate, which didn’t entirely work out, because the church has this thing about “the nearest Sunday to” being a good way to figure out when things should happen, but worked enough that the festivals happened around the same sort of time, so everyone was happy, even if they were confused about what they should be celebrating. At least, they were until they realized nobody actually knew what Lammas was really all about, or which parts were Pagan and which weren’t, at which point they all got so confused about things – and worried they’d celebrate the wrong thing and be fined, or end up going to Hell or something – so they wandered off to find something else to celebrate instead, and forgot all about Lammas. Only now they don’t care what people think any more, so are trying to remember what it was their ancestors were celebrating, so they can decide if it’s a good enough reason to ask for time off work to celebrate it. That’s the gist of it anyhow, at least it is from what I can tell.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. That cross-dressing thing isn’t just British: have you seen what priests all around the world wear?! I’ve heard that stage explanation too, and it does feel that it could be true, though what grown men would be doing with boys in dresses – or chasing sheep, come to that – is probably best left uninvestigated.

    WordPress’ spell check clearly hasn’t integrated into Britain as well as you. If it had it would know that we spell llamas as if they were Welsh. Then again, we don’t say llambs so it’s easy to see how WP got confused 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • You covered enough (shaky) ground there that I’ll tell you an almost relevant story about priests and their long dresses and then bail out: When my brother was very little, he was in a bakery with with my mother and a priest wearing his vestments. My brother took one look at him and said, in his loud, squeaky, little-boy’s voice, “Why that man wear bathrobe?”

      My mother fell back on, “I’ll tell you later” and hoped he’d forget all about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Really enjoyed this, lots of smiles and chuckles. Shitmass, pink tutu patterns, men joyfully sporting ladies’ clothes that women would never wear. And of course, I’m very happy for the sheep. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • My partner and I wandered into the Puck Fair by accident some twelve years back, with no idea what it was about or, until we got there, that it existed at all. The goat didn’t look happy.

      I expect the overlay of Christian and pre-Christian festivals happened from both directions. The early evangelists would have wanted to take festivals that people were familiar with and give them a Christian twist and later, once Christianity was obligatory, some people at least would have wanted to keep the festivals they were familiar with and give them a Christian twist. Which, I expect, is why Cornwall still has so many holy wells.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Here at the Washington State Fair, beginning in a week, CHILDREN ride on the backs of racing sheep! It’s a real thing. I seen it. I got pictures! They do wear helmets. I will be sure to put some bread out in the garden shed later. Don’t have a barn. Enjoyed the history lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Also spelled, Lughnasadh, or Lunasa, being a cross-quarter day, between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox … and celebrated globally a long time before the Christians got a hold of it and twisted it into their usual pretzel. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect a lot of cross-fertilization went on between Christian and pre-Christian holidays. In Peru, I’m told, if you know enough to look for them, you’ll find small statues that were originally of non-Christian gods incorporated into Christian iconography, just quietly tucked into place. If you don’t recognize them, they’re just little animals. If you do, then you see them a whole different way. I expect some of that went on among the Anglo-Saxons as well: We’re keeping this holiday, even if we have to make it a Christian one.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fortunately, they didn’t pack all these traditions up and load them on the Mayflower or whatever ship sailed to Jamestown (I had to look that up – Susan Constant (sometimes known as Sarah Constant), Godspeed, and Discovery). Anyway, no lamb festival here. We did attend a church that blessed animals (pets) on St. John’s feast day (the June St John, not the other) and they blessed bread on Thanksgiving. I remember a couple bringing a tube of Pop’n Fresh Crescent Rolls to be blessed – that’s a strong faith.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I guess the couple wanted to be sure they’d rise, because, y’know, rolls shall not rise by yeast alone.

      I think the Pilgrims would’ve considered those traditions suspiciously Catholic, being inheritances from back when people had a good time at festivals instead of sitting around being grim.

      Okay, I will now admit that I don’t know enough about the Pilgrims to know if they did occasionally allow for a good time. Most of what I know is hearsay, although I do remember reading that they didn’t dress entirely in black, white, and gray–they were known to sport a bit of bright color and to bequeath bright-colored clothes in their wills, which is how they got outed. If we dug deep enough, they’d probably be a lot more interesting than we expect.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating Ellen.. and there are slightly less pagan festivals here as they were religiously stamped out (pardon the pun) by the prevailing religion. But there are still some Druid and legend influenced festivals that are celebrated more now. I don’t subscribe to any organised religion now as indoctrination did not take effect in my childhood and teens.. I asked to many questions which was a no-no. However, in the dark ancient days without television, Hollywood and the Daily Mail, what were you to do to liven things up and have good party? Thanks for sharing Lammas day with us.. and here is the link to your first post from your archives.. which is already being enjoyed.. hugs Sally

    Liked by 1 person

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