WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Michaelmas

There are some holidays that are universal, such as Christmas and Easter, despite the differences in some customs connected with them from country to country. Most everyone knows something about those holidays, whether they observe them or not.

Then there are the quarter days in England.

These holidays have long fascinated me because they seemed so aristocratic, so fancy. Just the name “Lady Day” or “Midsummer” sounded far removed from my American and, let’s face, pedestrian likes of “Groundhog Day” and “Ask a Stupid Question Day.” Don’t get me wrong: part of what makes America, America, is its celebration of all things ridiculous and not taking itself too seriously. But there is something alluring and delightfully posh about English holidays.

And yes, I realize these quarter days are not exclusively English. For the purposes of my post, however (and my life, honestly), they are.

Michaelmas

The feast of St. Michael, September 29.

Michaelmas is celebrated every September 29th, and is the third of the quarter days (Lady Day on March 25th, Midsummer on June 24th, and Christmas on December 25th, being the others). As these dates were spaced three months apart, these were the times servants were hired, rents came due, and contracts and leases began. Michaelmas in particular was the time for electing magistrates, as the harvest was to be finished and preparations for the winter season of farming begun. Everyone had time to dispute and haggle now, so someone was needed to mediate.

September 29th also marked the beginning of university terms. As such, it was also said to be safe to begin hunting and house party season. With the young males dispatched to university, they were unable to disrupt grouse or single ladies, in turn.

Fowl Shooting by Henry Alken in The National Sports of Great Britain, 1825.

To commemorate the day, a goose was grazed on the leftovers in the fields from the harvest. On the 29th, families ate their fattened goose to ward against financial need during the upcoming year. In the United Kingdom, tradition related “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year.” Goose Fairs sprang up all over England; today’s fairs that still hold such names have moved to October and no longer sell geese, but they do offer plenty of rides, games, and deep-fried foods.

Michaelmas is named for one of the seven archangels of the Bible; Michael was the fierce warrior who fought Satan and the angels he persuaded to leave heaven. Because this holiday occurs as nights are growing longer, and dark forces stronger in the dark of night, it was believed that Michael’s stronger defenses would be needed during this season. Look no further for the dark deeds afoot this time of year than what Michaelmas was formerly known as: “Devil Spits Day.”

After the calendar reform of 1752, several activities associated with Michaelmas moved forward eleven days to October 10, which became known as “Old Michaelmas Day” (just to muddle the situation). So… Devil Spits Day? According to folklore, September 29 is the last day blackberries should be picked, because Old Scratch was kicked out of heaven on this very same day. He fell to earth and landed in a blackberry bush. Being terribly angry and, well, the Devil, he cursed the fruit, scorched them with his heated breath, and finally stomped and spat on them. The legend continues that the curse renews annually, and to eat blackberries after Michaelmas is unwise.

Devil’s Blackberries.

But while the Devil stirs up the evil, beauty is blooming in the form of the Michaelmas Daisy. In the language of flowers, a daisy means farewell; perhaps a floral goodbye to a good year. From an Irish proverb:

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

European Michaelmas Daisy Aster Amellus by Andé Karwath.

2 thoughts on “WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Michaelmas

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