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Catholic Activity: Lammas or Loaf Mass Day, Thanksgiving for Grain Harvest

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The feast of St. Peter in Chains, formerly on August 1st, has now been removed from the General Roman Calendar. This feast day was also called "Lammas Day" or "Loaf Mass Day" because this day was offered as thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, used for the bread that becomes the Eucharist. Florence Berger discusses close link of the liturgical year and agrarian life. She also discusses the Christianization of some pagan customs, using the example of Scotch Highland Quarter Cakes.

DIRECTIONS

As the hot, dry corn weather of July settles down on our countryside, there is a stop in our feasting. These are the days when dawn is not too early to get out a-berrying, and moonlight is not too late to tie tomatoes. Even the birds do most of their talking in the dew of the morning or the cool of the night. And in between the rickety-rackety tractor snorts on the hills and whinnies on the down grade, each one of the family is preoccupied with the plans of the day and more than occupied with the raw material of our life. I think the Church as well as tradition herself knew we were all busy in July. The Church lets us all be Marthas for the month, to work like the bees in the hive gathering food for our families. Tradition lets us all be Jacks for the month, to be as dull as dross while we fill the barns.

There is no doubt but that Christian worship and its visible counterpart, the liturgical year, have been adapted to an agrarian life. In fact we can almost admit that "the whole texture of industrial life — to which we gave birth — is against that of the Christian life." There is, however, great need for compromise and Christian charity. We cannot all be farmers just because it is a freer, easier way to live in the spirit of the Church year. But we who are farmers can appreciate our graces and let our neighbors know that Christ governs our daily economics as well as our Sunday worship. We cannot all be industrialists just because it is a more exciting and dangerous way to live without the spirit of the Church year. But we who are industrialists can wrest from the world the justice which Christ will demand for His workers. Without this none of us bring Christ to our homes, nor dare to ask a share in His home for eternity.

It is not long before the summer work comes to a turning point. There is a change from the hope of the seeding to the accomplishment of the harvest. August 1 has been held as harvest day in many lands for centuries. The new grain is to be tried. The first fruits are to be tested. Work is forgotten, and we recreate our strength with dances, songs and food.

This day was once called Lammas or Loaf Mass Day because the new grain was ground and baked into a special thank offering. The bread of the harvest was brought to God who blessed both the bread and His children.

There is no doubt, as J. A. McCulloch writes on "Cakes and Loaves," that "some of the cakes which have a prominent place in folk usage at certain periods of the year, e.g., Christian festivals and holy days, as well as on other occasions, are probably lineally descended from cakes used sacrificially or sacramental in pagan times. This is suggested by the customs observed in the making of these cakes, or the eating of them; by their division among the members of the family, or by their being marked with sacred symbols." This fact seems to disturb some timid Christians who fail to recognize the wise philosophy and policy of the Catholic Church in missionary countries. An Italian missionary is not sent to make his new people Italians nor is the American to convert his catechumens to Americanism. They are sent to make Christians, world citizens. So long as the native customs and habits were not in opposition to the law of nature or the law of God, they were not to be taken from the people. This rule held at the time of the apostles when they entered a country and spoke the vernacular. This procedure was followed when the Celts were allowed to bake their Highland Quarter Cakes. In these days as well, in India for example, a missionary does not take away the feast days of the newly instructed, but the pagan is accepted, reinterpreted and sanctified in Christ.

The perfect example of this transfer from pagan to Christian is found in a study of the Scotch Highland Quarter Cakes. These were special cakes baked in a prescribed manner and used in pagan rites to celebrate the beginnings of the four seasons. They were all called bannocks, which is an oatcake cut as round as a dinner plate and baked on a hot griddle. The Bonnach Bride was baked on February 1, the first day of spring. Later it was dedicated to St. Bridget of Ireland who died on that date in the year 523. The Bonnach Bealtain, or Beltane Bannock, was prepared for May 1, the opening day of summer. Originally this cake was made with nine knobs on it. These knobs were gift offerings to the fox or the eagle or the "hooded crow" who might harm field and flock. The cake was washed over with a thin batter of "whipped egg, milk, cream and a little oatmeal." In time the knobs disappeared. A cross and a circle marked the opposite sides of the cake, and both were symbols of Christ's death and resurrection. Beltane meant new fire so new flame was struck from flint to bake this cake. At first, trees, then wooden poles decorated like trees, were sacrificed in this fire. People in leafy headgear danced around the blaze in honor of the summer solstice. Those of you who have ever seen the beautiful Spanish solstice dance in honor of the Virgin Mary will understand how the riotous maypole dance was turned into a deep religious expression.

On August 1 the Bonnach Lunastain ushered in the harvest season. This day, as we said, was known as Lammas Day or Loaf Mass Day. The heathen cake was baked, it is true, but baked of the newly-harvested grain in thanksgiving for God's generosity and care. As the pagans sacrificed the fruits of the soil to the sun god, the newly baptized brought their bread to be blessed at the Loaf Mass.

Holy Lord, almighty Father, eternal God, graciously deign, to bless this bread with Thy spiritual benediction that all who eat it may have health of body and soul and that they may be protected against all sickness and against all the snares of the enemy.


Part of this bread, which they made of the grain they had raised, was consecrated and changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The greater part was blessed and taken home for the Lammas Day feast. And, if the loaf lasted more than a meal, the crumbs and leftovers were toasted and crumbled into a pot with butter and milk. The whole was cooked up like porridge, and the shepherds of Scotland gave thanks for their Butter Brughtins.

At last the days of winter came to close the sun's journey and give promise of a new year. Again the fires were relighted and Bannock Samthain was baked. The idea of sacrifice was inherent in the pagan rites. Willingly they gave up part of their harvest and their Bannocks in the fire, for they believed that by dying the divine life was strengthened within them. If they could but sacrifice enough, they might become better than they were. It was left for the Church to show them the Mass, the perfect sacrifice. The Church taught them that they had the right and duty to offer Christ, the spotless Victim, to God, their Father. It called down the divine life to them through the power of the sacrifice and, by the means of eating of the Eucharist, made them saints. Thus All-Saints Day supplants Samthain.

If you are curious, as we were, to see how a Quarter Bannock tastes, it is easy enough to make one. The only difficulty is buying the oat flour. We solved this problem by grinding in a hand mill the coarse oatmeal we could obtain at the store. This was easy going for Freddie who once ground up scratch feed and gave it to us for our bran muffins. Yes, we ate them and didn't mind the difference.

We always knew that August 1 was a wonderful day for a wedding, but it wasn't until last year that I found out why. We had chosen August 1 as our wedding day against the advice of everyone. My mother claimed it would be too hot. My sister claimed the gowns in a fall wedding were more becoming. My brother swore he wouldn't get all dressed-up in the dead of summer. But August 1 it was.

Now, after fifteen years, I hear that August 1 was always an uncommonly good day for weddings. It was on that day the farmer could look things over. The planting and cultivating and worrying were over. He had no more to do — except to harvest. If the profits looked good, he would take a wife. If they looked slim, papa would make him wait another year. It is a hard blow for a woman like me to find all her rosy dreams hanging on the peg of a harvest yield, to find that we were unconsciously following a very ordinary, plebeian tradition. Moral: don't delve too deep in history. It may blight your motives and intentions.

Activity Source: Cooking for Christ by Florence Berger, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 4625 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310, 1949, 1999

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