Originally written on September 29, 2021. Updated 2023
Michaelmas Day is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, celebrated on this day, 29 September.
Traditionally St. Michael is the patron saint of the sea and maritime lands, of ships and boatmen, but also of horses and horsemen.
He was the Angel who hurled Lucifer, the devil, down from Heaven for his treachery.
It is one of the Quarter Days, the days that marked the four major divisions of the year (Lady Day on 25th March, Midsummer on 24th June, Michaelmas on 29th September, and Christmas on 25th December).
Originally they marked the solstices and equinoxes, fitting readily into the rhythm of the ways people farmed.
As the 12-month Roman calendar was adopted for both civil and religious purposes, all of the Celtic days began to conform more closely with the liturgical year of the Christian church and became identified with major religious festivals.
Michaelmas Day is traditionally the last day of the harvest season.
As we already know, the harvest season used to begin on 1 August and was called Lammas, literally meaning “loaf Mass”, when Farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local church, in a custom that ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church.
As Michaelmas is the time that the darker nights and colder days begin – the edge into winter – its celebration is associated with encouraging protection during these dark months. It was believed that negative forces were stronger in darkness and so families would require stronger defences during the later months of the year.
Michaelmas, in fact, used to be a popular day for the winter night curfew to begin as well as the first hint that winter was on the way.
Curfew took the form of a tolling of the church bell, usually one strike for each of the days of the month that had passed in the current year, and generally rung at 9pm.
The bell was tolled every night, apart from Sunday, until Shrove Tuesday.
Interestingly, the word “curfew” may derive from the French word couvre feu, literally “cover fire”.
Chertsey, England, is one of the last places to still ring a Curfew bell at 8pm from Michaelmas Day to Lady Day, basically from 29th September to 25th March. And their oldest Curfew bell dates from 1380!
Michaelmas Day is sometimes also called Goose Day.
Goose Fairs are still held in some English towns, despite geese are no longer sold, including the famous Nottingham Goose Fair, on or around the 3rd of October.
Not by chance, a great custom in England was to dine on goose on this day, and one reason for this was said to be that Queen Elizabeth I was eating goose when news of the defeat of the Armada was brought to her. In celebration she said that henceforth she would always eat goose every Michaelmas Day, and soon others followed her lead.
Another suggestion why goose are eaten is that, as Michaelmas Day was a Quarter Day, rents were due and bills had to be paid. Tenants seeking delay of payment traditionally bought a goose as a present for their landlord to help seek his indulgence and, not by chance, geese were supposedly very fat (and tasty) at this time of year.
In any case, popular belief said that “he who eats goose on Michaelmas day shan’t money lack or debts to pay.”
Especially in Ireland and northern England, it was thought that if you ate goose at Michaelmas you would have good luck for the rest of the year.
Others include that: “If the breast bones of the goose are brown after roasting the following winter should be mild, but if the bones are white or have a slight blue hue then the winter will be severe.”
Another tradition is that, on the day after Michaelmas, every year agricultural labourers presented themselves, along with their tools, at the nearest market town. And there they offered themselves for hire for the coming year.
A fair followed the hirings and this was called “Mop Fair”.
In Scotland, St Michael’s Bannock, or Struan Micheil (a large scone-like cake) is also made.
This used to be made from cereals grown on the family’s land during the year, representing the fruits of the fields, and was cooked on a lamb skin, representing the fruit of the flocks. The cereals were also moistened with sheeps milk, as sheep are deemed the most sacred of animals.
Usually created by the eldest daughter of the family, through the celebration of the day in this way, the prosperity and wealth of the family is supported for the coming year.
All great, but what about blackberries?
Folklore in the British Isles suggests that Michaelmas day is the last day that they can be picked.
The reason for this belief has very ancient origins: It was said that the devil was kicked out of heaven on this day, when Michael himself, the greatest of all angels, defeated the angel Lucifer in a huge battle.
At that point Lucifer became the devil.
But, as he fell from the skies, he landed just in a bramble bush. Not by chance when you land in hell, you land end-first in a bunch of thorns.
Thus he cursed the fruit of that prickly plant, scorching them with his fiery breath, stamping on them, spitting and possibly urinated on it, and generally making them unsuitable for human consumption.
According to the legend, he renews his curse annually on Michaelmas Day and therefore it is very unlucky to gather blackberries after this date.
That’s why it is ill advised to eat blackberries after Michaelmas, a date better known in the United States as “National Poisoned Blackberry Day”.
As it is considered ill-advised to eat them after 11 October (Old Michaelmas Day according to the Julian Calendar), a Michaelmas pie is made from the last of the season.
In some part of Ireland, the soiling of blackberries is also attributed to a púca, a creature of Celtic folklore.
Moreover, victorians believed that trees planted on this day would grow especially well while, if St Michael brings many acorns, Christmas will cover the fields with snow and, a dark Michaelmas, traditionally means a light Christmas!
In any case, Happy Michaelmas, and eat up your blackberries before the devil spits on them!
Images from web – Google Research