Michaelmas

This is the feast day of St. Michael and all the Angels. It is the most ancient of all the angel festivals. The Anglican church celebrates all angels, both name and unnamed on one day. Roman and Orthodox Churches separate them into two categories (with the unnamed angels having their feast day on October 2nd).

From fairly early on, Michaelmas was an important holiday, the religious or Christian equivalent of the autumn equinox. In England, it was considered the start of a new quarter. It marked the start of a new business year, a time for electing officials, making contracts, paying rent, hiring servants, holding court and starting school. Obviously we still see the remnants of this in the timing of our elections and school year.

This is also a time when the weather is known to change. In Italy, they say “For St. Michael, heat goes into the heavens.” In Ireland, people expect a marked decrease in sickness or disease. The Irish also consider this a lucky day for fishing:

Plenty comes to the boat on Michael’s Day.

Barolini records a nursery rhyme about hours of sleep:

Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine
And Michaelmas eleven.

michaelmas-processionMichaelmas became the fixed date for the feast otherwise associated with Autumn Equinox or the harvest. As early as 1014, the laws of Ethelred in England prescribe a three day fast for all Christians before the feast. Servants weren’t allowed to work during these days. Michaelmas was a time when rents were due, and rents were often paid in food. The traditional rent for Michaelmas was a goose.

Eating something rich like goose at this turning point of the year brings good luck. In Nottingham they say “If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year.” In Norfolk, they say, “if you don’t baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all year.” In Yorkshire, they use the condition of the meat of the goose to predict the weather:

If the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull
We’ll have a sour winter, from the start to the full.

Fitzgibbon says the Irish used to stuff the goose with potato to cut the grease and absorb the flavor. This is like the traditional onion sauce served with goose in the 18th and 19th centuries and made from onions cooked in half milk and half water, with a slice of turnip, then mixed with butter, nutmeg, cream, salt and pepper and mashed. Apple sauce is the most common topping today.

In Italy, where this is clearly considered a harvest festival, they say “For St. Michael all the last fruits of the year are honeyed and ripe.”

Cosman says that it is traditional to eat ginger on Michaelmas. She mentions ginger ale, beer and wine, gingerbread, ginger snaps, fish baked with ginger and two ginger desserts: charwardon (made with large succulent wardon pears, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger) and ginger caramels with curls of ginger-root shavings on top.

Michaelmas daisy is the name given to flowers of the aster family which bloom at this time. I’ve seen it applied mostly to purple asters but Barolini says she used to pick yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on that day.

st-michaelSt Michael

Michael is a warrior angel often pictured poised with a sword over a dragon (or demon) that he tramples underfoot. Other times he rides a white steed, and carries a three-pronged spear in his right hand and a three-cornered shield in his left. He cast Lucifer and the other evil angels out of Paradise. Thus, in the Middle Ages was invoked as the patron of knights and warriors and in modern times, of military personnel and the police.

He’s been honored since ancient times as a protector. Most of his churches are on high places, for instance, Mont St. Michel in Brittany, the church on the tor at Glastonbury, the church on the tumulus at Carnac. They were often built on the sites where Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, was worshipped earlier.

Although all angels are sent as messengers from on high, Michael has a special task. He’s sent to fetch the souls of those who have died for judgement. For this reason he is also considered the patron saint of all trades that use scales which mean he looks after pastry chefs and weighers of grain.

My friend Carolee Colter translated this Litany of Saint Michael from the French prayer card she purchased while visiting Mont St Michel in Brittany:

Saint Michael, archangel, pray for us.
Saint Michael, chief of all the angels, pray for us.
Saint Michael, filled with the wisdom of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, very glorious prince, pray for us.
Saint Michael, strong in combat, pray for us.
Saint Michael, terror of demons, pray for us.
Saint Michael, vanquisher of Satan, pray for us.
Saint Michael, our support in the fight against evil, pray for us.
Saint Michael, prince of the celestial militia, pray for us.
Saint Michael, faithful servant of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, messenger of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, angel of peace, pray for us.
Saint Michael, guardian of Paradise, pray for us.
Saint Michael, support of the people of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, guardian and patron of the church, pray for us.
Saint Michael, benefactor of people who honor you, pray for us.
Saint Michael, whose prayers reach to heaven, pray for us.
Saint Michael, who introduces souls to the eternal light, pray for us.
Pray for us, Saint Michael, archangel.

For more information about St Michael, see the images and information at the Saints Preserved website.

Elegba: In the voodoo tradition, Michael is equated with Elegba, the messenger god. All ceremonies begin and end with petitions to Elegba, the god of the crossroads, whose shrine is behind the door.

Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations, Scribners
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Fitzgibbon, Theodora, A Taste of Ireland: Irish Traditional Foods, NY: Avenel Boosk 1978, p 105Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, Yearbook of English Festivals, H W Wilson 1954
Teish, Luisah, Jambalaya, Harper San Francisco 1979
Tickle, Phyllis, Ordinary Time

The photo of the procession is from a delightful article about reviving Michaelmas traditions written by Alys Hurn for Gardens Illustrated.

The painting of St Michael is by Guido Reni and was created in 1636.

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Michaelmas

Photo by Mark Twyning

September 29 is the feast day of St. Michael and all the Angels, the most ancient of all the angel festivals. From fairly early on, Michaelmas was an important holiday, the religious or Christian equivalent of the autumn equinox. Just as spring equinox was associated with another Archangel (Gabriel) and a fixed date (March 25), so did the Archangel Micheal’s holiday become a fixed date to celebrate the harvest holiday of autumn equinox.

Michael is one of my favorite saints, especially in his role as a protector. When I was worried about my adolescent daughter, I asked Michael to protect her and promised a pilgrimage to one of his traditional sites of worship. I was hoping to get to Mont St. Michel but made due with a walk up to the top of Skirrid Fawr in the Brecon Beacons where there was a ruined chapel to St. Michael.  Most churches to St. Michael are on the top of mountains, like this handsome church on an island off the coast of Cornwall.

In England, Michaelmas was considered the start of a new quarter. It marked the start of a new business year, a time for electing officials, making contracts, paying rent, hiring servants, holding court and starting school. Obviously we still see the remnants of this in the timing of our elections and school year.

This is also a time when the weather is known to change. In Italy, they say “For St. Michael, heat goes into the heavens.” In Ireland, people expect a marked decrease in sickness or disease. Barolini records a nursery rhyme about hours of sleep:

Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine
And Michaelmas eleven.

As early as 1014, the laws of Ethelred in England prescribed a three day fast for all Christians before the feast. Servants weren’t allowed to work during these days. Michaelmas was a time when rents were due, and rents were often paid in food. The traditional rent for Michaelmas was a goose.

Eating something rich like goose at this turning point of the year brings good luck. In Nottingham they say “If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year.” In Norfolk, they say, “if you don’t baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all year.” In Italy, where this is clearly considered a harvest festival, they say “For St. Michael all the last fruits of the year are honeyed and ripe.”

The celebration of Michaelmas in Scottish highlands and islands clearly shows that this was the occasion for a ritual thanksgiving for the abundance of harvest. An unblemished ram lamb called the Michael Lamb was killed on the eve of the feast to be served as the main course. Women made special cakes called struan Michael or Michaelmas cakes, from equal parts of all types of grain grown on the farm, kneaded with butter, eggs and sheep’s milk, marked with a cross and cooked on a stone heated by a fire of sacred oak, rowan and bramble wood. A piece of the cake was thrown into the fire as a tithe to St. Michael’s opponent, the Devil. Other cakes were made for special people, for the family and for the community. Cranberries, bilberries, brambleberries, caraway seeds and wild honey were baked into the cakes. Clearly part of the purpose of this charm was to take the bounty of the farm’s harvest and use it to fashion an offering of thanks. In a similar gesture, people in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire scattered grain for the wild birds to bring good luck to the farm.

From this Waldorf site

Ginger was also a traditional flavor enjoyed at Michaelmas in the form of gingerbread. I love the playfulness of these little dragon breads which I found at a Waldorf site. They are made from bread dough, shaped like dragons, and decorated with almonds and raisins.

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Autumn Equinox

Like its sister equinox, halfway across the Wheel of the Year, the Autumn Equinox is a good occasion for a ritual feast. Decorate the table with colorful autumn leaves in a basket. Display the fruits of the harvest – corn, gourds, nuts, grapes, apples – preferably in a cornucopia (a horn of plenty). Or decorate with wildflowers, acorns, nuts, berries, cocoons, anything that represents the harvest to you.

Plan a meal that uses seasonal and symbolic fruits and vegetables. You can serve bread, squash, corn, apples, cider and wine. Drawing on the imagery of the Eleusinian Mysteries, hold up an ear of corn in silence. Or cut open a pomegranate and feed each other the seeds.

The following poem (used by Starhawk in the equinox ritual in

www.public-domain-image.com (public domain image)

) comes from Mother Goose. Use this or make up your own variation as a grace. Have everyone at the feast repeat this, adding their own thanks:

We have sown, we have tended
We have grown, we have gathered
We have reaped a good harvest
Lady, we thank you for your gifts
Lord, we thank you for your bounty
I thank you for [fill in yourself].

Giving Thanks
Give thanks to the Goddess for the gifts you’ve received this year. You might want to make a list of your gifts or find objects to represent them. Consider how you can make your offering to her. You can represent your thanks symbolically (tying a ribbon on a tree branch or pouring some wine on the ground) or directly (by making a stronger commitment to recycling or scattering seed for the birds). If you buy (or make) a basket to use while shopping, you’ll be purchasing a symbol of Demeter and helping save the lives of her trees at the same time.

balanceCreating Balance
Use this time of balance, to look closely at the balance in our life. How do you balance your personal needs with your commitments to the outside world? How do you receive and how do you give? You might want to reflect on this in your journal or make it concrete by putting objects on a scale. For everything which represents one side of the scale to you (for instance, a book representing quiet time alone), place something on the other side which represents its opposite (a letter or phone for reaching out to friends).

Learning and Creating
For those of us who spend time in or around schools (as teachers, students or the parents of school-age children), this is not a time of ending but of beginning. We are just starting to get back into the rhythm of the school year. We may feel sad that the playfulness and freedom of summer are disappearing as we fall back into our fall routines and structures but we also have more focus and direction.

This is a good time to begin new projects. As the nights lengthen, you have more time to be alone, to concentrate, to nurture a seed which may not blossom until spring. Give yourself permissions to try something absolutely new. Take a class that teaches you how to do something you’ve always wanted to do–maybe basket-making Call your local college and ask about community education classes.

In Starhawk’s Autumn Equinox ritual, there is a time for weaving seed pods, shells, feathers and small pine cones into strands of yarn while thinking of what you want to create in your life. This or some variation of it would make a wonderful group activity or family project. You could also just set aside a certain amount of time (an evening, a Saturday) which is creative time, for you to make anything you want.

Source
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper San Francisco 1983

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St Matthew

As with other holidays, the Catholic Church assigned the feast day of a significant saint (St Matthew, one stmatthew-icon-imageof the original Apostles and the writer of a Gospel) to a date near the pagan celebration (the Autumn Equinox). For some reason (perhaps because Matthew is the patron saint of tax collectors and bankers), his holiday never became wildly popular. Instead all the seasonal customs one might expect to find on this day (like the harvest feast) migrated to the feast of St. Michael on September 29th.

However, the English note St. Matthew’s Day with a few weather predictions:
St Mathee, shut up the Bee;
St Mattho, take thy hopper and sow;
St Mathy, all the year goes by
St Matthie, sends sap into the tree

And

St Matthew
Brings the cold, rain and Dew

In the Midlands, St Matthew’s Day is viewed as the first of three windy days, also called “windy days of the barley harvest.”

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, Yearbook of English Festivals, H W Wilson 1954

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