Thursday, September 19, 2013

Angels and Geese for Michaelmas

Last year, I blogged about the feast of Harvest Home, a celebration of the end of the agricultural season. It tended to fall close to another celebration, this one of both ecclesiastical and bureaucratic significance: Michaelmas.

Guido Reni's 1635 "The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan" shows the angel expelling the rebellious Lucifer from Heaven.

Though Harvest Home was a movable feast, coinciding with the full moon, Michaelmas (pronounced MICK-el-mas) always falls on September 29. In the Anglican calendar, it's the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel.

Michael, the patron saint of soldiers and the sick and suffering, is the most powerful of all the angels, one of only two archangels (along with Gabriel) in Anglican theology. Michael is a warrior-angel, the leader of God's army; in painting and sculpture, he's nearly always depicted wearing armor and carrying a sword, and sometimes bearing a shield with the Latin inscription Quis ut Deus--Latin for Who is like God?, the Hebrew meaning of his name. He often stands with either a dragon or Satan beneath his foot. This is because in Revelation, "Michael and his angels" are said to have "cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12:7-9).

But historically, the significance of St. Michael's day in British life has more to do with practical matters than sacred ones. In addition to lending its name to the autumn academic term at Cambridge and Oxford, Michaelmas was also one of the four quarter-days, dates on which accounts were settled--rents paid, servants hired or let go, leases renewed, allowances handed out and debts collected. (The other three quarter days also fall near the end of the calendar seasons: Lady Day on March 25, Midsummer Day on June 24, and Christmas on December 25.)

Servants were often hired on Michaelmas, and many villages held "Mop Fairs," hiring fairs in which those looking for work would present themselves with the tools of their trade. Michaelmas was also a day when local officials such as council members and reeves were elected. The righteous influence of St. Michael was thought to make it an auspicious day to fill such positions.

In "Michaelmas" by Victorian painter Philip Richard Morris, a goose girl drives a gaggle of stubble geese before her.


As with most holidays, certain foods were associated with the day. It was traditional to serve a "stubble goose" on Michaelmas, since geese were in prime condition after having fed among the stubble of the harvested fields. Typically, the goose was a gift from the tenant to his landlord, presented along with his rent payment as a means of currying favor. Dining on goose was thought to ensure prosperity in the coming year. A poem of 1709 includes these lines:
Yet my wife would persuade me (as I am a sinner)
To have a fat goose on St. Michael for dinner:
And then all the year round, I pray you would mind it,
I shall not want money--oh, grant I may find it!
While visiting their brother Edward, Jane Austen even wrote to her sister Cassandra, "I dined upon goose yesterday--which I hope will secure a good sale of my second edition."

It was the last day of the year on which to eat blackberries, owing to the legend that when Satan fell from Heaven, he landed on a blackberry bramble and spit on it, turning the berries bad. Bannock, a type of flat bread, was also traditional in parts of Great Britain, particularly Ireland.

So remember Michaelmas on September 29, and eat goose for good luck. I may just try to roast one myself.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released on September 23. It's the story of an arrogant man's man and an outspoken spinster who must join forces to solve a deadly mystery. It will join her current release, Lord of Secrets, and her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

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