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A Good Michaelmas to You

If you’ve read much historical fiction set in Great Britain, you may have run across the word Michaelmas—there’s Michaelmas term at Oxford and Cambridge (and Eton, for that matter), and Michaelmas fairs, and Michaelmas geese…so just what is Michaelmas?

Michaelmas, celebrated on September 29, is the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, Captain of the Heavenly Host, who in the New Testament was responsible for booting Lucifer out of Heaven. St. Michael is the patron saint of soldiers, for obvious reasons.

His feast day became significant for several reasons—St. Michael an important figure in the heavenly hierarchy of the old (Roman Catholic) faith that was observed in England till the Reformation. But timing is also important here: his feast day here at the end of September more or less coincides with the autumnal equinox, the end of summer and beginning of fall and the three-quarter point of the year, and so became a Quarter Day, when rents and other quarterly payments were due. In case you were wondering, the others were Christmas Day on December 25, Lady Day (also known as the Feast of the Annunciation) on March 25, and St. John’s Day on June 24.

Several other autumn-related phenomenon eventually took on the Michaelmas name. Geese were often fattened on the leftover stalks in the field after the grain had been harvested, then driven to fairs to be sold before winter set in, so a “stubble” goose was a common Michaelmas dish. It was also common for farm laborers to seek new masters at those same post-harvest autumn fairs. And the start of the autumn term in both school (Oxford and Cambridge, as mentioned above) and the court system borrowed their name from St. Michael’s feast day. Fall-blooming asters are sometimes known as Michaelmas daisies.

And then there are blackberries. According to legend, it is very unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmas Day, because when Lucifer was cast from heaven, he landed in a blackberry bush…and supposedly returns each year on his nemesis’s feast day to curse and spit upon them!


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