Nicholas Rhea's Diary
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Michaelmas Day, perhaps more formally known as the Feast of St Michael the Archangel, was one of the most important days of the year. Although not quite so highly regarded as Christmas Day or Easter Sunday, it ranked alongside Shrove Tuesday, Martinmas Day, Rogation Sunday and others of similar status.
Falling on 29 September, Michaelmas differs from most of the other saints' days in that it honours a spirit and not a human being. This St Michael is mentioned in the Bible on several occasions where he and his band of angels fight the dragon, which symbolises the eternal fight of good versus evil. Highly popular in the middle ages, he was depicted in art as a winged and handsome young man clad either in white garments, or in armour and carrying either a lance or a shield. He is the patron saint of knights, grocers and of Normandy in France. Regarded as the leader of all the angels, it is this St Michael who will sound the trumpet to command the dead to arise on the Last Day.
St Michael was given his own feast day by Pope Gelasius in AD 487, and afterwards, several apparitions of Michael were reported from around the world. One was on Mount Gargano in Italy during the fifth century, another was in the eighth century at what is now Mont Michel in Normandy, France and yet another was at St Michael's Mount in Mount's Bay, not far from Land's End, England.
All the apparitions were on the tops of hills where chapels were later built to his honour. The chapel on the top of St Michael's Mount off the Cornish coast contains an old beacon turret where, so the legend says, newly married couples should sit - and the first to actually sit down will then gain supremacy in the home! There is also a rock here which is known as St Michael's Chair.
In England before the Reformation, as in churches throughout the world, mass was said on this day in honour of St Michael, hence the name Michaelmas Day, but in rural England, there were other events and celebrations.
Some of these were in the form of fairs or livestock sales, often with the hiring of workers occurring at the same time. In most cases, though, hiring fairs were held later in the year, at Martinmas (the feast of St Martin of Tours on November 11), with the Michaelmas fairs being more of a holiday. One of these was the famous Nottingham Goose Fair which is now held on October 3; nonetheless, in some areas, Michaelmas Day continues to be known as Goose Day and for a long time, goose fairs and sheep sales were held on this day in various parts of England.
The association with geese arises because Queen Elizabeth I was eating goose on this day when she received news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada; at the celebratory meal which followed the victory, goose was eaten and thus it became customary to eat goose on Michaelmas Day. This goose feast continued for centuries afterwards, even if the original reason had been forgotten. Indeed, lots of landlords used to hold goose feasts for their tenants on this day because Michaelmas Day was one of the quarter days when rents were due.
Among the other curious customs of Michaelmas Day, three were associated with wild fruit. Rose hips were picked in some parts of Yorkshire and made into a sweet drink - the day therefore became known as Hipping Day. Another custom was to pick hazel nuts and so it became known also as Nut Crack Day. In fact some rural churches began to celebrate Nut Crack Day on the previous evening, ie the Eve of Michaelmas. Inside the churches, nuts were cracked on that evening, giving it the name of Nut Crack Night but the reason for this remains very obscure. The only reference I can find - one which adds a certain mystery to the occasion - tells me that "it was a night of great rejoicing with mysterious rites and ceremonies" and in some cases, these seem to have spilled over into the day following.
Perhaps the best known links with wild fruit and Michaelmas, however, is the popular custom which suggests that Michaelmas Day is the last day upon which brambles are worth picking. Lots of country folk, even now, steadfastly refuse to collect wild brambles, otherwise known as blackberries, after Michaelmas Day. By ancient tradition, it is the day upon which the devil puts his foot on brambles, or as they say in some areas, spits on them - or worse! The reason for this belief has ancient origins - it was said that the devil was kicked out of heaven on St Michael's Feast Day, but as he fell from the skies, he landed in a bramble bush! He cursed the fruit of that prickly plant, scorching them with his fiery breath, stamping on them, spitting on them and generally making them unsuitable for human consumption. There is no doubt brambles are past their best by 29 September, but it is not due to the devil. The culprit is a small insect called a fleshfly which turns the flesh to pulp so that it can digest it.
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 09:56 AM GMT [Link]