All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds. For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel
IF THE SEVENTH day is the Sabbath of my week, August is the Sabbath of my year. For most of my life, August has meant vacation. As a child, my parents would pack my brother and me into the station wagon, head to the ferry dock on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound, and float across the water to the Hamptons, where my mother’s best friend, Patti, lived.
August meant long days in the sun at the beach and long dinners around Patti’s table with fresh zucchini, snap peas, tomatoes, and corn from the farm stand down the road. Some days—some of the most magical of my childhood—before dinner, Patti would hand me a little metal bucket and lead me across her gravel road to a bramble-laden field where we’d pick blueberries.
Nearly 40 years on, the muscle-memories I have of plucking those indigo gems from their prickly rests have not faded a bit. While I usually collect my blueberries these days from Trader Joe’s, I still pick through the berries as Patti taught me to, looking for the few errant green stems left behind by the processing plant.
For me, there is a palpable spiritual connection between the slow rhythm of August and the gentle beckoning of the Sabbath—a sacred time to slow down and realign myself with my family and my Creator, to rest, replenish, and allow myself to be inspired.
What I didn’t know until recently is that there is an actual spiritual connection between August and blueberries. Well, bilberries, to be more precise.
For the ancient Celts, the first day of August was holy. They called it Lughnasa (“loo-nuh-sah”)—the beginning of the harvest season and the festival of first fruits. According to Irish myth, Lughnasa is said to have been initiated by Lugh, the heroic High King/god who was the grandson of a nasty tyrant named Balor of the Evil Eye, about whom there had been a prophecy: He’d be killed by a grandson.
So Balor put his only daughter in a cave where, much to his dismay, she became pregnant by a man from Balor’s rival clan, the Tuatha De Danann, and gave birth to triplets. Balor drowned two of the newborns, but Lugh was spared and raised by a blacksmith and his wife, Tailtiu.
Tailtiu was a remarkably selfless goddess/queen who, according to lore, single-handedly cleared a forest in County Meath with an ax so that the local inhabitants could plant fields after a bad harvest. She died of exhaustion, but before she breathed her last, she asked Lugh to commemorate her death every year and ensure that “Ireland would never be without song.”
Lugh’s commemoration of his beloved foster mother on the first of August became known as Lughnasa, a festival marked by family reunions, harvest festivals, and other agriculturally themed events.
Guess what the first ripe fruits in August are in Ireland? Bilberries, a cousin of the North American blueberry. In parts of Ireland, it’s a tradition to gather the wild berries on the last Sunday in July (known, variously, as “Bilberry Sunday” or “Lughnasa Sunday”).
This year, I’m spending Lughnasa at home in California on the shores of the Pacific. I won’t be heading to the Hamptons (or anywhere else) for two weeks of vacation, but when the August Sabbath beckons, I will do my best to honor it by stepping away from the computer, loading my son into our family truckster, grabbing a couple of buckets, and driving to a blueberry farm up the coast.
And when we return from the farm, we’ll sit on the porch with our booty of periwinkle berries, and I’ll show my boy how to pick out the green stems while we watch the sun setting over the sea.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of four nonfiction books, including the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace and her latest, BELIEBER!. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.