Michaelmas

imageMichaelmas is celebrated annually on 29 September. Michaelmas is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel (also the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, the Feast of the Archangels, or the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels). In medieval England, Michaelmas marked the ending and beginning of the husbandman’s year, George C. Homans observes: “at that time harvest was over, and the bailiff or reeve of the manor would be making out the accounts for the year.”

In Christianity, the Archangel Michael is the greatest of all the Archangels and is honored for defeating Lucifer in the war in heaven. He is one of the principal angelic warriors, seen as a protector against the dark of night, and the administrator of cosmic intelligence. Michaelmas has also delineated time and seasons for secular purposes as well, particularly in Britain and Ireland as one of the quarter days. The Eastern Orthodox Churches do not observe Michaelmas, except the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox honor the archangels on 8 November instead.

In the fifth century a basilica near Rome was dedicated in honour of Michael on 30 September, beginning with celebrations on the eve of that day, and 29 September is now kept in honour of Michael and all Angels throughout the western Church.During the Middle Ages, Michaelmas, or the Feast of St. Michael, was celebrated as a Holy Day of Obligation, but this tradition was abolished in the 18th century. Lutheran Christians consider it a principal feast of Christ, and the Lutheran Confessor, Philip Melanchthon, wrote a hymn for the day that is still sung in Lutheran Churches: “Lord God to Thee We Give”.

Because Michaelmas falls near the equinox, it is associated in the northern hemisphere with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days. It was also one of the English, Welsh and Irish quarter days when accounts had to be settled. On manors, it was the day when a reeve was elected from the peasants. Michaelmas hiring fairs were held at the end of September or beginning of October. On the Isle of Skye, Scotland, a procession was held. One of the few flowers left around at this time of year is the Michaelmas daisy. Hence the rhyme: “The Michaelmas daisies, among dead weeds, Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds …”

There is also a custom of baking a special bread, called Struan Micheil, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel which probably originated in the Hebrides. The bread was made from equal parts of barley, oats, and rye. In remembrance of absent friends or those who had died, special Struans, blessed at an early morning Mass, were given to the poor in their names. Nuts were traditionally cracked on Michaelmas Eve. In northern Scotland and Ireland, a special cake called St Michael’s bannock, or Michaelmas Bannock (also known as a Struan) was baked without using any metal implements.

Saint Michael is also the patron of some North American police officers, and Michaelmas may also be a Blue Mass. Michaelmas is still celebrated in the Waldorf schools, which celebrate it as the “festival of strong will” during the autumnal equinox. Folklore in the British Isles also suggests that Michaelmas day is the last day that Blackberries can be picked. It is said that when St. Michael expelled Lucifer, the devil, from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush. Satan cursed the fruit, scorched them with his fiery breath, and stamped and spat on them, so that they would be unfit for eating. Hence it is considered ill-advised to eat them after 29 September, a Michaelmas pie is made from the last of the season.

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