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Seasonal rituals

By Margaret Brown [email protected]

Margaret Brown is one of the Algarve Resident’s longest standing contributors and has lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years.

Several ancient pre-Christian festivals have, over the millennia, become incorporated into Christian church practice.

Slowly their identity was altered during the early Middle Ages and because they were more easily absorbed by the uneducated majority, dates of these long standing Pagan rites remained unchanged.

Over the centuries, some parts of the seasonal rituals which were unacceptable were removed and once sanitised, became part of the Christian Calendar.

Lammas, which used to be celebrated on August 1, is still one of the Quarter Days in Scotland, although by an Act of George II the festival now falls on August 13.

In medieval times, it marked the beginning of the wheat harvest, the first fruits of which were made into a loaf for presentation and blessing at the local Church. But after 1752, when Britain changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, this practice fell into disuse.

Around that time, there began a slow changeover from the title Lammas to Harvest Festival. This was held on a full moon closest to the autumn equinox in late September, by which time the grain should have been safely gathered in.

Churches were decorated with sheaves of corn, loaves and fruit on the nearest Sunday, their abundance to be celebrated with prayers and thanksgiving. Afterwards, the food was given to the local poor, a practice still followed by the three churches of St. Vincent’s in the Algarve.

No longer evocative of the farming year but in many ways more practical, today goods bought at local supermarkets are laid before the altar for blessing, thanksgiving and later distribution among the hungry and homeless.

Some of the ancient rites remain, such as Lammas week Sheep Fairs in Yorkshire during which, centuries ago, it was acceptable for young courting couples to live together for seven days, after which they went their separate ways should they prove to be incompatible.

The first crops having been presented in Church, after the final mowing the last sheaf of corn which was believed to hold the spirit of the grain, was made as a ‘Dolly’ shaped like a woman. Kept until the first furrow was drawn the following year this was either ritually burned, or buried in the soil at seed time to ensure a good harvest.

Such goings on, more in keeping with tradition than a mantra to the Gods of Fertility, may still be found in backwoods villages in the North of England. On small holdings across Europe where combine harvesters have not yet taken over from the scythe, ritual and superstition continue to influence the farming year.

Moving to the Algarve in 1986 after buying a small holding with 10 hectares of mixed land, quickly we had to learn a different way of farming. We left the moist and fertile soil of Somerset for a plot of rocky earth, which was no more than degraded sand stone.

With two large horses to feed and only bailed straw on sale in the monthly market, we turned to Manuel, our nearest neighbour, for advice. He spoke no English, we had no Portuguese but somehow knowledge was imparted backed up by his unstinting help.

First he harrowed one of our paddocks nearest to his holding and then, waiting until the moon was full, broadcast grass seed by hand from a sack tucked beneath his left arm. Under his guidance we joined Frutico-op, a local agricultural merchant where we bought rain birds and many metres of 2inch water piping at member’s discount.

Daily irrigation throughout the heat of summer ensured that by autumn there was a thick stand of rich green fodder, together with other patches also seeded one with Lucerne much to the delight of a large hare, who appeared to make it his base.

Until this month, there had been no more sightings and then for three days last week a medium sized young hare was grazing on a patch of lush grass quite near the house.

Apparently, these animals breed all year but mainly between March and October and the babies are born with eyes open and legs ready to run, their mothers visiting them once a day that they might suckle.

Another visitor of a different species has kept me entertained while working at the kitchen sink, as I gaze through the window doing those repetitive jobs that are a housewife’s lot. Not that I decry the honourable estate of domesticity but after 57 years, like someone working at a conveyor belt, certain movements do not require the brain to be engaged.

For a couple of months, a large black fly has taken up station at various times on the balustrade and table outside. About one and a quarter centimetres long, it touches down as soon as the day heats up and hangs around until tea time.

Having mastered the mechanics of vertical take-off, the fly shoots into the air and plops down a couple of feet away, sometimes backward, sometimes forward. On occasion it moves beyond the speed of sight and there it is again on a site nearby inspecting the vicinity with a long, round-tipped proboscis.

With scarlet compound eyes and finely striped body, it is not at all camera shy and so far I have failed to identify it.