General

Why did our ancestors celebrate Michaelmas?



Astronomically, autumn in the northern hemisphere arrives around 21/22 September each year. For our UK and Irish ancestors, however, it was a week later - the 29 September - that was of greater significance. Michaelmas was the feast day of St Michael and All Angels. It was also the date that marked the end of the harvest, the end of blackberry eating, and provided an occasion for socialising and merriment.

Michaelmas was not only a religious feast, but also had serious secular implications. Along with Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer (24 June), and Christmas Day (25 December), Michaelmas was one of the four Quarter Days. On this day, farmers would pay their rents, servants would attend the Michaelmas Fair in the hopes of being hired, and universities would return to a new term. In Scotland, the feast marked the date of elections in sheriffdoms and burghs, and was associated with horse racing. Michaelmas was the first of the four terms of the legal year.


Religious Significance

Michaelmas began as the feast of St Michael the Archangel (or Archangel Michael to some Protestants). St Michael represents the heavenly struggle of good against evil. The 29 September was believed to be the day he cast the Devil out of Heaven, as described in the Bible:

Michaelmas Daisy by Nellie Benson

Then war broke out in heaven.

Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.

But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Revelation 12, 7-9

St Michael, mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Daniel and the New Testament Books of the Epistle of Jude and Revelation, was celebrated from the Middle Ages in art, prayer, and poetry. By the 18th century, his feast day was marked by church services. Bach’s cantatas, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV 130 (1724), Es erhub sich ein Streit, BWV 19 (1726) and Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg, BWV 149 (1728 or 1729) were all written for Michaelmas.

If you have Roman Catholic ancestors who were practising between 1886 and 1964, they may well have recited the Prayer to St Michael after Pope Leo XIII added it to the Leonine Prayers, which were prayed after Low Mass.

Blessed Michael, archangel,

defend us in the hour of conflict.

Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil

(may God restrain him, we humbly pray):

and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,

by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell

and with him those other wicked spirits

who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.

Amen.

 

Irish author, James Joyce, drew on his Catholic upbringing when he quoted the prayer in his novel, Ulysses (1918-20/1922).

Rural Traditions

Michaelmas was significant to our rural ancestors in numerous ways. In the agricultural calendar, Michaelmas marked the end of Harvest and would be celebrated accordingly. Harvest traditionally began on Lammas Day - 1 August. In 2021, church harvest festivals in the UK will be held on 3 October - this is the closest Sunday to the harvest moon, but also that following Michaelmas. Some of our ancestors may have prepared for the feast by picking the wildflower, Michaelmas daisy (Aster amellus) - so called as it tends to flower around the 29th September.

Folklore decreed that after Michael had flung him out of Heaven, the Devil landed in a bramble bush. This manifests in the Irish proverb: “On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on blackberries.” There are different versions of what happened after he landed in the bush, but he was believed to have been so angered by the thorns he either spat or urinated on them. According to folklore, this is why blackberries picked after this date will be poisonous or, in the least, taste sour. Thus none should pick blackberries after Michaelmas. According to botanists, the more prosaic explanation is that blackberries tend to be affected by mould from late summer. Nevertheless, the tradition is strong and marked in various cultural practices; there is even a traditional Scottish country dance named The Bramble Bush.

Michaelmas Day was traditionally celebrated on 10th October but when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752 and eleven days dropped from that year, events associated with the end of the harvest were moved by eleven days to 29th September. In some areas the later date remained. For example, Norfolk marks Michaelmas on 11 October. After 1752, though, for the most part, the 10th October became known as Old Michaelmas Day, or Devil Spits Day - the day the devil spat on blackberries when he fell on them in the bramble bush.

Michaelmas Feast

Like Christmas for many, a Michaelmas feast would involve eating a large bird. As the day marked the beginning of the farming year, tenants would sometimes present their landlord with a goose when paying their quarter rent. This was known as the Michaelmas Goose, and was believed to promote prosperity for the coming year. In contrast to the Christmas goose, which was typically fed wheat, the Michaelmas goose was leaner - having been fed on grass stubble gleanings from the harvest.

Our Scottish ancestors celebrated the feast by baking St Michaels’s Struan - a cake prepared from all the cereals grown on the farm. Once baked, this was carried to church to be blessed and then eaten at the feast.



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Sources

Bonnie Blackburn,  Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Gordon Donaldson, Robert S Morpeth, A Dictionary of Scottish History (John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1977)

James Joyce, Ulysses (Vintage, 1990; first published February 2nd 1922)

 

Michaelmas Daisy by Nellie Benson; http://www.reusableart.com/d/56-3/michaelmas-daisy.jpg Gallery page http://www.reusableart.com/v/sets/a-flower-book/michaelmas-daisy.jpg.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25179920

Guido Reni's Michael (in Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome, 1636) tramples Satan. A mosaic of the same painting decorates St. Michael's Altar in St. Peter's Basilica.

By Guido Reni - http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/257, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9571452

Notes and comments

Please contact Emma Jolly for more information about this article

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