August is the month of the harvest, and most customs of this month involve harvest in one way or another. August 1 is Lammas, a festival of the wheat harvest first celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England. Its name means “loaf-mass”, and it may originally have been a day when loaves of bread made from the first harvested corn were taken to church to be blessed.
In England Lammas has long been a popular date for fairs and local feasts, and in recent years it’s had a revival as a Christian festival, with services of thanksgiving and blessing of special “Lammas loaves”.
Though Lammas was historically only celebrated in England, it’s one of several days in August when it was customary throughout the medieval church to bless different harvest crops. Grapes were blessed on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and herbs on the Feast of the Assumption (August 15). In the Middle Ages the Assumption, “Lady Day in harvest”, was a very popular feast. The story of Mary’s peaceful passing out of life, surrounded by the apostles, was often presented in mystery plays and processions, with people carrying statues of Mary and re-enacting her burial before her body was taken to heaven. The day is still a public holiday in many Catholic countries.
The custom of gathering and blessing herbs on this feast day reflects the widespread association in medieval tradition between the Virgin Mary and plants of all kinds. In the liturgy of Marian feasts, Mary is often compared to flowers such as roses and lilies, for their beauty and purity; but she is also likened to herbs, vines, and crops with their power to heal and sustain life.
There are many herbs and flowers which take their name from Mary or have been linked with her in folklore: rosemary, marigold, mint (once called “Our Lady’s mint”), Lady’s Bedstraw, and many others.
The Assumption would be a good day to pick some Marian flowers or use herbs in your cooking, to remember this ancient association between Our Lady and plants which bring health, comfort and delight.