The Difference Between Lammas and Llamas

The business of bringing the past to life is always interesting and, sometimes, tricky. This is especially true when you learn something new about the past, such as, for example, an old folk holiday a couple of the cultures the Frontier Culture Museum represents celebrated long ago and brought to America, but is now nearly forgotten. Then, when you are really in the mood to cause confusion and consternation, you put an event on the calendar and name it after this old, forgotten holiday, and start advertising it to the public. That is when things begin to happen, that’s when you learn that more of the public is paying attention than you imagined – which is actually gratifying – and that the past really is, as some historians like to say, a foreign country.

The holiday in question is Lammas, the old so-called, “cross-quarter day,” of the British year that marks midsummer by some reckoning, and was celebrated on August 1 to mark the end of the wheat harvest. The origins of the celebration and its association with the wheat harvest are pre-Christian, but the name Lammas is derived from the Old English words hlaf, which became loaf in modern English, and maesse, which became mass, and the two combined make loaf-mass, which through the workings of human language was transformed into Lammas sometime during medieval times. As the term mass suggests, religious services were held at this time, during which loaves of bread made from the newly harvested wheat were presented as offerings of the first fruits of the harvest.

Exactly when Lammas celebrations were at their height is uncertain, and though in some parts of England they survived in the form of Lammas Lands, which were village common lands that local custom permitted certain households to fence in for private use during part of the year. On Lammas Day the fences were pulled down and the commons were again open for the use of all village households, at least for several months.

Some sources suggest Lammas was brought to America by English colonists as a harvest thanksgiving celebration that continued in some places until well into the nineteenth century. It is thought to have disappeared as an American holiday sometime after Thanksgiving was made a legal holiday in 1863 and its emergence as the national harvest celebration, despite the fourth Thursday in November coming long after the wheat harvest in this part of the world. So, for 21st century Americans, the idea that once upon a time some of our rural ancestors celebrated a holiday on August 1, a date that now has little or no meaning in our culture, is hopefully of some interest and will spur the curious to learn more about it.

The good news for the curious, or the confused, is that Lammas remains in the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries, and discussions of it can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and on-line in Wikipedia. The very determined and resourceful curious will further learn Lammas is still celebrated in some communities in the United Kingdom including one in Northern Ireland where it is called the Auld Lammas Fair and local residents claim has been celebrated annually since sometime in the seventeenth century. So, by holding a Lammas Fair of its own, the Frontier Culture Museum is re-introducing an ancient holiday to a new generation.

What the Museum is definitely not doing is holding a Llama Fair, and Museum staff does know how to spell both the singular and plural name of the domesticated camelid that is native to Peru where it has been used for centuries as a pack animal, as a source of meat, and of wool fibers that can be spun and woven into a heavy, warm cloth. The more important point to note and remember is that there will be no llamas at the Museum on August 5. This bears repeating: No llamas will be at the Frontier Culture Museum on Saturday, August 5, 2017, or on any other date for that matter. Llamas have nothing to do with Lammas, and the Museum has no immediate or long-range plans to add an Incan or Peruvian outdoor exhibit where these animals could be kept; though as outdoor exhibits go, either or both would be very interesting.

That said, should you or anyone you know conclude from the Museum’s social media posts or the signs at our entrances that we are holding a Llama Fair, we do apologize for any confusion or disappointment you might be experiencing as you read this. As always, all are welcome to come enjoy the Museum’s Lammas Fair, but we do not want anybody to make special plans or travel long distances to visit the Museum in the belief that they, their children, or their grandchildren will see, pet or purchase a llama or llama product, only to learn upon arrival that there are no llamas anywhere to be found. But for what it is worth, we still have plenty of cows and sheep, some very friendly goats, a few pigs, a horse, a miniature donkey, and lots of chickens and ducks, all of whom will be happy to see you, especially if you feed them.


  1. Ed Scerbo says:

    Funny AND informative! 🙂

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