In many traditional and indigenous cultures custom is something that is imbued with spiritual value; often it is where what westerners label the religious resides in daily life. In terms of cultures that convert to a formal, universalistic belief system this is often where a lot of the ground level spirituality of the old ways continue to exist, even if loosely formatted into new conceptions. This was certainly the case with the Irish and other Celtic peoples. Such customs can often become quite meaningful to those of living in (post)modern societies. Some are very tied to a specific locale, others will have greater resonance in diverse regions.
One I have found meaningful, and that has become a tradition in my family, is to go a-berrying around Lughnasadh. In my Californian home area berries are a marker that Lughnasadh is arriving, just as in Ireland. This brings us into the thorny topic of dates. Some want to strictly adhere to a calendrical date like the evening of August 1st for the holiday. Others feel that looking for signs in local nature are more important in determining the time of celebration, and waiting until late in the month if that seems warranted. Looking at Irish customs one finds that in recent times Lughnasadh is celebrated on a Sunday, usually the Sunday closest to August 1st, which is variously named Bilberry Sunday, Heatherberry Sunday, Garland Sunday, etc. (in some places there was offering of first fruits and flowers and also garlanding, such as of an old stone pillar at Grange, beside Lough Gur). While the festival is well-known in Pagan circles as a first fruits of the grain harvest, the gathering of wild fruits was also an important element into recent times. In Ireland those who lived near woods and heaths gathered wild strawberries, whortleberries/blueberries and raspberries, and even small holders usually had gooseberries or currants in their gardens to pick for the holiday meal. Blueberry mashes were a popular holiday dish, which are simply blueberries mashed up with cream.
In much of the North American continent blackberries are prolific and ripening at this time. I find it delightful to pick them and then bake a berry pie for the holiday. Huckleberries, though small, are good for this too. Even if you don’t live where you can harvest wild berries, procuring some at a farmers’ market or store will work. But there is something especially resonant about picking wild food which puts us in touch with the wilder side of our traditions. Picking wild berries connects us intimately with what the Land is doing at this time of year, and for many puts us back in touch with a popular summer time activity of our grandparents or great-grandparents, so there is the familial connection as well. In most places various types of berries were an important and healthful foodstuff for indigenous cultures—as well as for the bears. I think it interesting how often festival foods go back to pre-agricultural times, in this case even though there is obviously a strong agricultural component of first harvest of the cultivated fields at Lughnasadh.
Custom also calls for feasting on a high place, a hill or height of some kind, or besides water. It’s an excellent occasion for picnics. For those who celebrate with liturgical ritual such customs can greatly add in terms of context, mood and meaning. For those who don’t they can be stand-alone practices.
I find that this connects me both with customs in the ‘old country’ and with my own bioregion here on the Pacific Coast of North America.
My blackberry nut-flour crust pie is chilling in the fridge. We’ll see how it tastes tomorrow. :’-)
Danaher, Kevin. The Year In Ireland: Irish Calendrical Customs. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1972. An indispensable look at 18th, 19th and early 20th century customs.
MacNeill, Máire. The Festival of Lughnasa. Oxford: 1962. This is back in print after a long time out.
Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. London: Thames & Hudson, 1992. Although Dames is overly-influenced by a matriarchal Goddess view of prehistory, this book is chockfull of interesting customs and lore.
I also recommend the wonderful film, Dancing At Lughnasa directed by Pat O’Connor, starring Meryl Streep (1998).