Traditions of Michaelmas

editorial image

by Heather Elvidge

Trees are showing few signs of autumn colour yet, thanks to the mild, damp conditions. Most are still a dull green, enlivened here and there with dashes of yellow. And the grass keeps on growing, keeping our lawnmowers in work.

This kind of weather isn’t unusual for the end of September. It even has a name – not Indian summer, that’s a fine spell in October – but “Blackberry summer”. Bramble bushes are loaded with berries this year and tradition says they must be picked before Michaelmas on the 29th, because that’s when “the Devil puts his foot on blackberries.”

If you’re wondering, why would Old Nick would bother with a few blackberries, well they remind him of a great humiliation.

When Lucifer and his legions took on the archangel Michael and his angelic host, the battle ended in defeat for Lucifer. Michael threw him out of Heaven and the fallen angel landed on earth in a thorny bramble thicket. Every year since the devil has returned at Michaelmas to trample and spit on the blackberries.

So if you haven’t picked any yet, better hurry. Blackberries become watery after a frost, and clear autumn nights are when frosts begin.

Michaelmas

St Michael is commemorated in the many churches dedicated to the archangel, almost all of which are built on hills. And the lovely plant that’s said to flower in his honour:

Michaelmas daisies, among dede weeds,

Bloom for St Michael’s
valorous deeds.

The feast day of St Michael and All Angels used to be a huge festival. It’s an old Quarter day when servants and farm workers sought new employers, new magistrates were elected, rents and other debts were paid, and surplus farm animals were sold at Michaelmas fairs.

It’s still an important time for selling stock, especially sheep. This is when hill farmers sell breeding stock to lowland farmers, who cross the hardy hill sheep with other breeds. But apart from some old colleges that use the name for their autumn term, Michaelmas goes by mostly unnoticed.

It could be argued that Michaelmas is our lost festival, the one that fell between the end of summer and the festive season. And like Christmas, there was a traditional, set-piece dinner.

For around 500 years, until the early 20th century, families ate roast goose stuffed with the season’s new apples. The birds were reckoned to be at their tastiest after feeding on fallen grain left in the stubble fields. The custom was also believed to be lucky – if you ate goose on Michaelmas Day, you wouldn’t want for money all year.

On the weather front, a fine Michaelmas “sets all in tune” and it’s also a day for predicting the wind. Whichever way it’s blowing on the 29th that will be the prevailing direction for the next three months.

All animals born at Michaelmas were thought to be mischievous. But “blackberry kittens”, particularly those with tortoiseshell coats, were lucky.

Another way to attract luck is to pick three bramble leaves at Michaelmas – watch out for Old Nick - and tuck them in your purse or wallet. They will never be empty, as long as the leaves remain there.