Monday, September 29, 2008

Happy Michaelmas!

Saint Michael the Archangel,
Defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the
Wickedness and snares of the devil...

Today, September 29, is the Feast Day of St. Michael the Archangel. Popularly called Michaelmas, in the Christian calendar, all angels are honored on this day. Michaelmas is different from most other saints' days because it honors a spirit and not a human being.

To many, Saint Michael the Archangel, "Captain of the Heavenly Host," is best known as that dauntless spirit who vanquished his peer among the angels, Lucifer, once called "the Star of the Morning." Michael is a star of the love than conquers pride. Sometimes he is pictured as a winged angel in white robes, but oftener as the armed warrior on the errands of God, about his head a halo and under his foot the demon, prone and helpless. He was honored in Jewish tradition, and became the champion of Christian warriors as well, although in early ages he was also given the protection of the sick. Feast Day Cookbook (1951) by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger

St Michael's Day was celebrated as long ago as the 6th century. It is often associated with the beginning of autumn and traditional harvest festivals. One popular tradition included The Hunt for the Michaelmas Goose after which everyone would sit down to a feast. In England it was the custom to eat a goose on Michaelmas and to save the remains for Michaelmas Broth. Although highly unlikely, (the custom was much more ancient, and probably arose from geese being plentiful and in fine condition for the table, at the festival of St. Michael) legend has it that the custom of dining on goose on St. Michael's Day stems from Queen Elizabeth I. It is said, she was dining on goose when she heard the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armanda in 1588. In her joy and triumph she decreed that, "hereafter, goose should be eaten on this day."

Since geese were so plentiful and were now ready to be harvested, it's easy to understand why a goose became the traditional main course. However, there is a fascinating story that has become part of British folklore. Supposedly, Queen Elizabeth I dined at the ancient seat of Sir Neville Umfreyville, where, among other things, two fine geese were provided for dinner. The queen, having eaten heartily, called for a bumper of Burgundy; and gave as a toast, "Destruction to the Spanish Armada!" Scarcely had she spoken when a messenger announced the destruction of the fleet by a storm. The queen demanded a second bumper, and said, "Henceforth shall a goose commemorate this great victory." This tale is marred by the awkward circumstance that the thanksgiving sermon for the victory was preached at St. Paul's on the 20th August, and the fleet was dispersed by the winds in July. From Celebrating St. Michael's Day in Old Ireland

I discovered a late 19th century book online titled Observations on Popular Antiquities... which offers a bit more insight to this popular legend.

Douce mentions having somewhere read that the reason for eating goose on Michaelmas Day was that Queen Elizabeth received the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, whilst she was eating a goose on Michaelmas Day, and that in commemoration of that event she ever afterwards on that day dined on a goose. But this appears rather to be a strong proof that the custom prevailed even at Court in Elizabeth's time. We have just seen that it was in use in the tenth year of King Edward IV. The following passage from Gascoigne's Posies (1575) shows it to have been in practice in Elizabeth's reign before the event of the Spanish defeat — "
And when the tenants come to pay their quarter's rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose
And somewhat else at New-year's tide, for fear their lease fly loose.

During medieval times, Michaelmas was one of the important "four quarter days." The others included Christmas, Lady Day, and Midsummer Day. Financial accounts had to be settled and land owners "headed to the hills" for their respective payments. Those who needed to delay payment brought geese as presents to their landlords. Goslings at this time of year were said to be worthy meals as payment offerings.

Celebration of this holiday traditionally was symbolized with  glofe, gees, and gyngeuer.  The glove represented the open-handedness and generosity of the lord of the village, goose eaten for good luck in the coming year (“If you eat goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year”), and ginger, believed to provide protection against infection.   The harvest feast paid the laborers for their boon work with meat, fish, ale and good bread. source
This notion, fram'd in days of yore, 
Is grounded on a prudent score; 
For, doubtless, 'twas at first designed 
To make the people Seasons mind, 
That so they might apply their care 
To all those things which needful were, 
And, by a good industrious hand, 
Know when and how t' improve their land."

Food for Michaelmas

Michaelmas is sometimes called Goose Day. When the Church reformed the Roman calendar in 1752, many of the activities associated with St. Michael's Day were moved forward to October 10 which is sometimes called Old Michaelmas Day. A famous Michaelmas fair is the Nottingham Goose Fair which is held during the first week of October. (link below)

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael's valorous deeds.

And seems the last of flowers that stood,

Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

The popular saying to eat goose on the Feast Day of St. Michael is only one of the many rich customs associated with Michaelmas. The customs and celebrations surrounding feast days are an essential part of the Christian tradition. Many times an entire meal is shared to its last detail in symbolic meaning. Customs and recipes for traditional dishes are handed down from generation to generation. For instance, celebrating St. Michael's Day in the Celtic tradition may include Michaelmas Pie. (the quaint custom of hiding a ring in the pie led to the expectation of marriage in the coming year.) St. Michael's Bannocks or Saint Michael’s Cake. In the traditional ceremonies in Scotland, all guests, together with their family, were required to eat the large, scone-like cake entirely before the night was over. Traditionally the Struan Michaels (Struan Micheil) was not allowed to touch metal while cooking.

It was, till of late, an universal custom among the islanders, on Michaelmas-day, to prepare in every family, a loaf of cake of bread, enormously large, and compounded of different ingredients. This cake belonged to the archangel, and had its name from him. Every one in each family, whether strangers or domestics, had his portion of this kind of shew-bread, and had, of course, some title to the friendship and protection of Michael."(Macauley's History of St. Kilda)
Michaelmas Day was always observed in the Celtic Calendar, and Struan Michaels and Beltane Bannocks entered as much into the calculations of the Highland housewife as do Shrove-tide cakes and hot-cross-buns elsewhere. They were prepared somewhat after this fashion. The first sheaves of the harvest were taken, dried, and ground into meal with the quern. Then the housewife took some eggs, butter, and treacle, mixed them up, and into the mixture put the new meal, making a dough. On the stone slab forming her hearthstone she put some red hot peats, and when sufficiently heated swept it clean. On this the dough was placed to cook with an inverted pot over it. During the process of cooking it was often basted with beaten eggs, forming a custard-like covering. Finally, after the cake was cooked a small piece was broken off and cast into the fire. Why? The housewife did this in order to safeguard herself and her household against the Evil One. After reserving some of the Struan for the use of the household, she went round the neighbours in triumph and gave them a bit each, there being usually a great rivalry as to who should be the first to grind the new meal and get the Struan ready. The first to do so was generally understood to have the best crops through the coming year...Folklore published by the Folklore society of Great Britain (1903)

Another ceremony practiced in Scotland during this time was Carrot Sunday. On the Sunday before the Feast Day of Saint Michael, Scottish women went into the fields to dig up wild carrots, Queen Anne's Lace. If they found carrots that were twisted or forked, they were delighted with the gift of the earth, which was thought to bring luck and fertility. In the fashion of a more modern day Sadie Hawkins Dance, a woman offered the coveted forked carrot bunch to her intended tied with a red ribbon.

In parts of Gaelic speaking Scotland where extreme Calvinism had less early influence Michaelmas (29th September) was an important feast day seeming to acquire the rituals associated in earlier times with Lughnasadh, particularly horse racing and sports, as well as the gathering of carrots by women and their distribution at a Michaelmas dance. source

In Cooking for Christ, Florence Berger (1949) states that waffles baked in a Gaufrette Iron, St. Michael's Guafres are traditional for Michaelmas Day in France. I found an American version of St. Michael's Waffles online.

In some parts of Europe, especially Germany, Denmark, and Austria, a special wine called "Saint Michael's Love" (Michelsminne) is drunk on this day. Germans also believed they could foretell the weather from the breastbones of the Michaelmas goose — a belief that traveled to America with German immigrants, and still exists today among the Pennsylvania Dutch. In Italy, gnocchi is the traditional fare and the aster amellus or Italian Starwort is the original plant dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.

In the Middle Ages Michael became in Normandy the patron of mariners. His shrines were built in high places, facing the sea, and Mont-Saint-Michel on its rock is the greatest example of devotion to him, a place of pilgrimage a thousand years ago as it still is today. In the early days much food was sold around the shrine "bread and pasties, fruit and fish, birds, cakes, venizens," according to an old description. The fare is simpler today but a visitor to Mont-Saint-Michel will eat a famed and favorite dish; Omelet of Mere Poulard.

St. Michael is the patron saint of artists, hat-makers, grocers, knights, mariners, policemen, radiologists, the sick, and soldiers. St. Michael the Archangel is also the universally recognized patron saint of the paratroopers around the world. There are also superstitious folk lores associated with the feast day of St. Michael. According to an old legend, blackberries should not be picked after this date. It is believed that the devil was banished from Heaven and as he fell from sky he landed in a blackberry bush. He cursed the bramble and made it unfit for human consumption. Legend has it that each September 29th he renews his curse and therefore one must not pick blackberries after Michaelmas. 

In the recipe book The Tenth Muse author Sir Harry Luke, offers a recipe for Goose for Saint Michael's Day. I have scanned the recipes below.

1. Michaelmas Menu
2. Recipes for the Feast at the Hunt for the Michaelmas Goose
3. Michaelmas Goose with Traditional Potato & Apple Stuffing @ Star Chefs
4. Observations on Popular Antiquities...
5. Celebrating St. Michael's Day in Old Ireland
6. Nottingham Goose Fair History
7. Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1895) p.372
8. Catholic Family Vignettes
9. Feast Day Cookbook (online)
10. Customs and Beliefs from North East Scotland
11. Solid Gold Carrot Cake
12. Folklore (Folklore Society book online @ google books)


  1. Ahhh so this is what Michaelmas is. I used to hear the term in those old historic romance novels I read as teenager. I could roast a goose about now!

  2. 葬儀で失敗する人のほとんどは、葬儀社のの言うままに鵜呑みにしまうことです。


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