WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Michaelmas

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.


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.
WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Black Spy

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Black Spy

Last week’s term – Dandy Grey Russet – introduced me to the concept of the Devil’s Nutting Bag. Never heard of it before, needed to know more, so must write post 🙂

Black Spy

The Devil.

According to Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics. Myths, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom by Richard Folkard, the Devil is on the lookout for those who go nutting on a Sunday. Children were warned that to do such meant the Devil, disguised as a gentleman, would hold down the branches for them.

Nutting Party, 1832.

The tradition of a Nutting Day dates back to 1560 Eton, when boys were given a half-holiday to gather nuts, creating the phrase “gone a-nutting.” Consequently, as one might suspect from a tradition associated with young boys, going “a-nutting” soon became a euphemism for sex and seduction, giving rise to its own saying, “a good year for nuts, a good year for babies.”

The 17th Century play Grim, the Collier of Croyden addresses those devil nuts – in both literal and seductive sense – in verse.

Excerpt from Grim, the Collier of Croyden.

After a run-in with the Devil, minds are changed about the seductive pull of going a-nutting.

Excerpt from Grim, The Collier of Croyden.

The worst day of the year to gather nuts is September 14th, according to a letter written by Northamptonshire poet John Clare to his friend, William Hone,  in 1825.

On Holy Rood Day it is faithfully and confidently believed by both old and young that the Devil goes a-nutting on that day and I have heard many people affirm that they once thought it a tale till they ventured to the woods on that day when they smelt such a strong smell of brimstone as nearly stifled them before they could escape out again…

Oh dear.

The safest day to gather nuts is September 21st, when legend has it the Devil was out gathering nuts and ran smack into the Virgin Mary. In his fright, he dropped his bag and fled. The dropped bag of nuts formed a hill in Alcester, Warwickshire, which has henceforth been known as The Devil’s Nightcap.

So not only is the devil busy spitting on blackberries in September, he’s also out tormenting nut gatherers. Fusty Old Scratch.

Folklore is fascinating.