September 29: The Christian Fall Equinox Festival
September 29 is Michaelmas Day, a major Christian Feast, marking the Equinox. It is one of the "quarter days", signalling the beginning of each quarter of the year and welcoming each of the four seasons. These holidays were communally celebrated during the "Age of Faith", reassigned from already established astrologically-based pagan festivities. The
other quarter days are Christmas on December 25, Lady Day (Annunciation) on March 25 and St John the Baptist's Day on June 24.
September's Equinox in much of Europe marks the traditional end of the harvest, when sickles and scythes slash and snip in the reaping of the grain. As harvest ends, the grain is stored in the granaries and meats and fish are salted, to be eaten during the wintry months ahead. Astrologically, the Equinox marks the beginning of the
sign Libra – the exaltation of Saturn, the grim reaper! Michaelmas (pron: "Mickle-mus") is the Christian Harvest Feast marking the Equinox, held on September 29 in honour of St Michael the Archangel, one of the principal angels in the Christian heavenly host.
Angels are believed to be divine beings who serve as messengers and representatives of God – though in Michael's case, he was also the chief general of the divine army responsible for expelling the Enemy, the rebellious archangel Lucifer and his gang of fallen angel followers from Heaven. According to the Catholic Encyclopædia, his name, which
means in Hebrew: "Who is like God?", was the war-cry of the loyal angels in this primeval celestial battle [Revelations 12:7]. St John speaks there of the great conflict at the end of time, which reflects also the battle in heaven at the beginning of time. There are several other explicit references, but according to the Church
Fathers, St Michael also appears in scripture where his name is not always explicitly mentioned. They hold that he was the cherub who, after the expulsion of the now self-conscious Adam and Eve, stood at the gate of paradise, "to keep the way of the tree of life" [Genesis 3:24]. He was the angel through whom God published the Ten
Commandments to his chosen people; the angel who stood in the way against Balaam (Numbers 22:22 sqq.); as well as the angel who routed the army of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35).
According to the "Saints" section of the Catholic Online resource, Holy Scripture describes St. Michael as "one of the chief princes", and leader of the forces of heaven in their triumph over the powers of hell. He has been especially honoured and invoked as patron and protector by the Church from the time of the
Apostles, for he is the champion of the Jewish people, and by extension, of all Christians, the inheritors of the Jewish tradition. Although he is always called "the Archangel", the Greek Fathers and many others place him over all the angels – as Prince of the Seraphim. Tradition holds that he is the Angel who told the Virgin Mary of her approaching death. According to Muslims, who also revere
him, Michael's body is covered with fine hairs and each one, like a tongue, implores the mercy of Allah on behalf of sinners. St. Michael is the patron saint of grocers, mariners, paratroopers, police, chivalric knights, and sick people. He is represented in Christian Art as a beautiful young man, winged, clad in armour, and with sword and shield combating the dragon. He often holds a pair of
scales in which he weighs the souls of the departed (or the book of life to show that he takes part in the judgment). The relationship to the Equinox is thus made specific, as the astrological symbol for the sign Libra, which always commences at the Equinox, is of course, a set of scales.
Even though St Michael is a Christian figure, his festival contains elements of both Christian and ancient pagan practices. In fact, in Germany anyway, St Michael replaced the pagan god Wotan (or Woden, the cognate god of Mercury) after the Christian conversion of the Germanic peoples. There are many chapels to Michael in Germany, especially on mountains,
which were sacred to Wotan in the pre-Christian era. Interestingly, one of the oldest pagan practices is the corn dolly. This was made from the last sheaf of wheat of the harvest and was woven into a human shape, to take the place of honour on the harvest feast table. This dolly was kept until the spring and ploughed into the first furrow to bring fortune and fertility for the new farming year.
As one of the Quarter Days, Michaelmas was when the new accounting and farming year officially began. Workmen would be hired and accounts would be settled. Unfortunately this feast is no longer the grand event it once was, nor is it so noted for its hospitality.
The Food for the Feast
In England, the entire autumn season is known traditionally as Michaelmas. Many traditions of our contemporary harvest fairs have their origins in mediæval times. Michaelmas fairs were and are a focal gathering for farmers and merchants. The Feast of Michaelmas was important during the Middle Ages, when it was often the occasion of a fair and
an associated feast.
Feasts really were feasts in mediæval times, and the whole roasted Michaelmas goose – roasted and decorated with its own feathers after cooking to look as though it was alive – was an important part of this one. The bird was carried to the table of the lord of the manor in a procession with great ceremony on a platter decorated with autumn
fruit and flowers. Those who did not have goose would have a roast chicken decorated with grey goose feathers, or a goose subtletie – a pastry-and-marzipan substitute. But all had to taste of it, for: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas and you will not want for money for a year.”
Glofe, Gees and Gyngeuer
It appears that the custom grew out of the practice of rural tenants bringing a stubble-goose to their landlords when paying their rent, or to encourage them to be lenient if money was short. At this particular time of the year geese were plentiful and at their best, owing to the benefits of the stubble feeding. Since the landlords received many more such
presents than they could themselves consume, they passed them over to their friends or acquaintances. In this way the Michaelmas goose became a standing dinner-dish.
The Michaelmas glove – often more than six feet tall, made of leather and stuffed with cotton or wood chips – would be
hung up to announce the beginning of the fair. This glove declared that the town had the sanction of the mayor, nobleman or king to hold the fair, such as one given by King John to the town of Sturbridge in 1211. It stood for the handshake of promises, openhandedness and generosity. The fair itself would draw merchants from great distances to trade in all manner of goods in a square or a building
called (for the occasion) Pie Powder Court. Derived from the French pied poudre (dusty feet), this referred to the long roads travelled on foot, and was a court of justice for and by the travellers.
Another tradition of Michaelmas is the use of ginger, a spice used to flavour beer and wine, fish and sweetmeats. All manner of foods seasoned with ginger are part of the day's menu from gingerbread to ginger beer. The tradition may indeed have its roots in the Middle Ages, since it is said that a wealthy merchant once brought a shipload of the rare spice to sell at the Michaelmas market. When a
high tax was levied on his cargo, he refused to pay, choosing instead to pass the ginger out to any who wanted some. Ginger may also be the flavour of Michaelmas because St Michael is the patron saint of healers – and ginger is a good remedy for stomach and chest illnesses.
St Michael, bearing a set of scales
Christian tradition gives to St. Michael four offices:
- To fight against Satan
- To rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death
- To be the champion of God's people, the Jews in the Old Law, the Christians in the New Testament; therefore he was the patron of the Church, and of the orders of knights during the Middle Ages
- To call away from earth and bring men's souls to judgment
As well as this, Michaelmas marked a number of significant social turning points. Wheat and rye were sown from Michaelmas on to Christmas and it marked the start of the fiscal year for tradesmen. Michaelmas is used in the sense of autumn, naming the first term of the academic year for various educational institutions in the United Kingdom and Ireland
(typically those with lengthy history and traditions).
Michaelmas Day is also the day when, by hallowed custom, civic and municipal officers are elected all over England, particularly the Lord Mayor of London, and Lord Mayors of other cities. People instinctively felt an analogy between
their chief magistrates and guardian angels, as the former presided over and protected the people, just as the latter protected their souls. An ideal Mayor-choosing Day, then, as St Michael the Archangel is known as the guardian and protector of the Christian Church, the established Church of England.