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.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Michaelmas Daisy

The Michaelmas daisy, among dead weeds
Blooms for St Michael’s valorous deeds

Any of the various asters can also be called a Michaelmas daisy, so named because they are members of the Daisy (compositae) family and they bloom through Michaelmas, providing a late show of color and bloom in the garden.

There are species of asters native to America, Switzerland and Italy. The aster amellus or Italian starwort is the original plant dedicated to Archangel Michael, whose holiday we celebrate on Michaelmas, September 29. (For more on this holiday, see this article.)

The 16th century herbalist, Gerard, commented on the aster native to England, the sea starwort (aster tripolium) which grew along the coast but flourished when brought into the garden. He called it tripolium because “It was reported by men of great fame and learning [he was referring to Discorides]..that it doth change the colors of his flowers thrice a day.”

In the 17th century, the plant collector, John Tradescant Jr. began bringing asters from North America to England. In 1633 he brought over the Virginia aster (aster lateriflorus). Later he introduced the very popular New England aster (Aster nova-angliae) and New York aster (Aster nova-belgii). These plants have since been reclassified; they are still in the tribe of Asters but under the genus name of Symphyotrichum (from the Greek words for “growing together” and “hair”—poor plant, aster is a much more appropriate and glamorous name).

Still if you were looking for one in a nursery, you’d probably say you were looking for an aster. There are many varieties available, most of them hybrids of the New England and New York asters, in many colors and sizes, with names like Harrington Pink (an heirloom aster dating from the 1930s) and Persian Rose, September Ruby and violet Carpet, Purple Dome and Wood’s Pink.

Aster Etymology

Asters are named for the stars they resemble—the name comes from the same root word as astrology and asteroid, asterisk and disaster–and in England, they are sometimes called starwort (wort simply means herb or plant with healing properties). Several legends are told about their origins. One says that Virgo scattered stardust on earth and they became asters. Another attributes their origin to the goddess Astraea (often associated with the constellation Virgo) who withdrew from earth out of sorrow and looking down wept. Her tears became asters

Aster Folklore

In ancient Greece, aster leaves were burned to keep away evil spirits and drive off serpents. Pliny the Elder recommended a tea of aster in cases of snake bite and an aster amulet to ease the pain of sciatica. Virgil wrote about it in the Georgics:

There is a useful flower
Growing in the meadows, which the country folk
Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find,
For its large cluster lifts itself in air
Out of one root; its central orb is gold
But it wears petals in a numerous ring
Of glossy purplish blue; ’tis often laid
In twisted garlands at some holy shrine.
Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it
In valley-pastures where the winding streams
Of Mella flow. The roots of this, steeped well,
In hot, high-flavored wine, thou may’st set down
At the hive door in baskets heaping full.

Helen Baroli in her book about Italian holiday food mentions picking yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on Michaelmas.

I don’t think the cake has any asters in it but the Plants for the Future website gives aster amellus, the native Italian aster, a rating of 2 for edibility and 2 for medicinal qualities. The roots have been used to make medicine for coughs, pulmonary infections and malaria. However they warn that although the native aster is probably safe to eat, the hybrid decorative varieties may not be.

The aster is considered a herb of Venus and like the daisy, which belongs to the same family of Compositae, it has been used in love divinations.

Growing Asters

Asters are easy to grow. I just saw a meadow full of three-foot high purplish-blue asters in a marsh on Puget Sound, where I presume they were growing wild. Although the plant can grow in poor conditions, it likes moist soil and lots of sun. Asters should be divided every three years.

One of my favorite garden writers, Paghat, offers a selection of aster photographs and tips on cultivation (at least in the Pacific Northwest) at her website.  Check her index for other asters.

She’s also the person who referred me to Picton Garden in Worcestershire, the site of the original Michaelmas Daisy Nursery founded in 1906 by Ernest Ballard. He was an English plant breeder who specialized in Michaelmas daisies.

China aster painted by Redoute

Chinese asters come from a different genus Callistephys, but they also bloom in autumn at the same time as the Michaelmas daisy. Their name means beautiful crown from the Greek kallistos (beautiful) and stephanus (crown). They were often planted in Chinese gardens in pots and arranged in a row with one shade blending into one another to produce a rainbow effect, something that might be fun to do with asters in your garden.

The sheer variety of China asters in shapes and color, is why aster means “variety” in the language of flowers. Asters are also associated with elegance and daintiness.

References:

Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, first published in 1597, reprint by Studio Editions 1994
Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Martin, Laura C., Wildflower Folklore, Globe Pequot 1993
Martin, Tovah, Heirloom Flowers, Fireside 1999
Parson, Frances Theodora and Mrs William Starr Dana, According to Season, A Celebration of Nature, Houghton Mifflin 1990
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997

Illustrations:

The lovely picture of the purple aster was taken by Heather Oetkin’s elementary school students and featured at the Human Flower Project website, where Julie Ardery admits that asters are on her hated plants list.

For Cecily Mary Barker’s depiction of the Michaelmas Daisy Fairy
First published on September 9, 2011

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend