Let me open this essay by saying: I am not a spiritual leader. I do not aspire to be a spiritual leader, and I am not trying to sell you any spiritual content. I grew up in a generation that made the understandable-if-unfortunate choice to mark intelligence by a distaste for organized religion, and it stuck with me. If you are the same: I assure you are safe here. I am not even comfortable identifying myself as a witch — although, I will confess I recently spent the better part of a year trying to turn myself into one (But that’s another story.)
During my year of absorbing all the modern witchcraft content I could get my hands on, in the hopes that it would turn me into a kind of self-actualized, calm, contented Deepak-Chopra-meets-Sailor-Moon wunderadult, I had a few serious revelations. One of them was around Lammas.
Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh, is an Irish holiday celebrating the themes of harvest. There is some discrepancy about the underlying myth behind this ancient pagan celebration, but the most common one is that the Celtic god of light (Lugh) sacrifices himself in order to lend the rest of his magical life-giving radiance to the earth, so that the crops may continue to grow throughout the remainder of summer. (Some variations include: Lugh marrying the Goddess, dudes having an excuse to get drunk and wrestle, or ignoring Lugh completely and instead celebrating how great his mom is. I am not an expert in Celtic lore. This is just what I gleaned after reading about 40 books on modern witchcraft.)
The traditional Celtic holiday was adopted by figureheads in the 1960s United States neopagan revolution, as the first harvest festival in the Wheel of the Year. You may have heard of some other holidays on this calendar, such as Yule, Beltane, or Samhain. However, few people outside of Ireland or the neopagan community have heard of Lammas. Even most neopagans and witches don’t afford it much fuss. Lammas has the unfortunate fate of, from the American perspective, being a random day in the middle of summer, when nothing else is going on to remind you it’s coming up (it is not a coincidence that I am writing this article the day before this holiday happens). There is an esbat basically every eight weeks in the Wheel of the Year. This shit can get exhausting. Thusly, Lammas often ends up on the cutting room floor.
Here, I would like to humbly make the case for why, in my opinion, it is extraordinarily relevant — especially to anyone going through a crisis, or some other against-your-will growth spurt. Lammas is a piece of time earmarked for deciding what you want to see grow to its fullest, and what you must sacrifice in order for that to happen. This is deep enough. But the under-layer I found when I actually celebrated this holiday isn’t just decisions around scarcity of resources. It was the realization that I had more resources than I pretended I did.
In August of 2021, I ran out of my house in a whirling rush and spent a heady sum on candles, books and Wiccan altar objects, with the goal of creating a proper, traditional Lammas witchcraft ritual by and for myself. (I did it in a rush because I started my witchcraft journey on July 31, not knowing one of the high holidays was the very next day, and of course I considered waiting to delay the whole thing, to engender respect and gravity through proper planning but the Wheel of the Year is tied to time and time waits for no one and whatever the point is I don’t judge your spiritual journey don’t judge mine).
I sat down in front of my altar (built on a cardboard box) that I had put together in my office (which was a glorified closet), and tried not to notice how it was sagging under the weight of cauldrons and candles and chalices and plates of bread I had theatrically heaped upon it. I felt self-conscious, immature, disrespectful, idiotic. Then, I actually began the ritual.
I was new, and doing this alone, so I was more or less reading out of a book. I won’t get into all the details here, but eventually, in the dim, incense-fog of my room, I opened my eyes and looked at this little yellow candle, burning passively across from me, and I thought about sacrifice: the ones I had made in the past, and those I might make in the near future to achieve a dream.
Then, the book I was reading from asked me to think about other people who have sacrificed things for me, my success, and my happiness. My mom came to mind instantly. Then my friends. My partner. Past lovers.
And this is where the real magic happened.
It’s not that I’ve never tried to be grateful before. I was awake in 2018. I listened to Oprah talk about “attitude of gratitude.” I strive to acknowledge the people who have helped me get along in life. Nobody does anything alone, and anyone who pretends they do is probably a narcissist.
But this was more than gratitude. Yes, I have been wronged and cheated, but I realized what I was feeling while reflecting on everyone who has ever made a sacrifice for me is: loved. Profoundly loved. For a brief moment, I was consumed with the warm, rare dual sensation of respecting myself and being certain I am loved by others. I’m frankly not sure this has ever happened to me before.
In the United States, especially in the era of meme-packaged Instagram therapy, I feel like I being bombarded with messages on the value of independence, on the art of drawing out everything you need in life from within yourself. It’s pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, applied to self-care. What Lammas forced me to do was contend with the reality that a great number of people have helped me get to where I am in life — and instead of feeling guilty or burdensome about this fact, briefly allow me to exist in a little bubble where I could just feel it.
When we think about sacrifice, we often think about what we can endure. We hold up the idea of our own toughness, and admire it like a jewel: “here’s what I bet I could survive. Here is what I have survived.”
It’s not that that is wrong. It’s just that Lammas taught me a different side of sacrifice. It taught me to accept the grace of the interconnection of all things, in a world of finite resources.
This was my experience anyway. I wouldn’t pretend to know what yours would be. In previous chapters of history, witchcraft was about reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards and hexing your neighbors butter churn. Today, it’s self-help. Your experience might not look like mine.
So. I’m not saying you should do anything on August 1. I would never presume. But, let’s say, hypothetically, you feel like shit right now. Let’s say, maybe, I don’t know, you feel like you’ve been betrayed, let down, and rejected by someone close to you. Let’s say you don’t know where you’re gonna be living in November and you’re slightly panicking about how you’re gonna survive the next few months (of course I’m not pulling from my own life, why would you think that? Stop projecting, sheesh). If you have 15–20 minutes on August 1, you could, maybe, if you wanted to, swallow your doubt for a moment. It’s not religion, it’s not satan worship, you’re not summoning a demon, I promise. Just, light a candle. Look at it. Consider the harvest within your life. Consider those goals you have worked on this year that are now nearing completion. Consider what you have to abandon in order to see something grow further. Then, challenge yourself to accept the harvest of all those that work to your good. Ask yourself to hold this love as preparation — the weighty, plump, nourishing potatoes that you can store in the cellar of your mind — to get you through the rest of this year.