Michaelmas

Medieval Festival
Michaelmas fell near the end of the harvest season, and was a time for settling accounts and balances. Franz Marc Frei / LOOK-foto / Getty Images

In the British Isles, Michaelmas is celebrated on September 29. As the Feast of St. Michael within the Catholic church, this date is often associated with the harvest because of its proximity to the autumn equinox. Although it's not a Pagan holiday in the true sense, Michaelmas celebrations often included older aspects of Pagan harvest customs, such as the weaving of corn dolls from the last sheaves of grain.

Did You Know?

  • During the Middle Ages, Michaelmas became known as one of England's quarter days, which correspond to the Pagan celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes.
  • A corn doll was crafted by early societies to honor the grain fields, and that custom has continued into the Michaelmas celebrations of the early middle period.
  • It's said that if you gather blackberries after Michaelmas, they'll be unfit for human consumption, because that's the day the devil spits on them.

Pagan Roots

Close-up of a woman bending straw to make a spiral cone-shaped corn dolly, a rural tradition believed to have Pagan origins, these small symbolic works are made from wheat straw weaved around a core of straw or wire in various shapes, using the previous ye
Paul Felix / Getty Images

Like many other celebrations falling during harvest time, Michaelmas can trace some of its traditions to early Pagan practices in Europe. One of the most popular harvest customs that was adapted by Christians and integrated into the Michaelmas celebration was that of a corn doll. A corn doll is often associated with the period between Lammas, the first grain harvest, and the autumnal equinox.

It was understood that the grain fields had spirits, and the corn doll represented the spirit of those rows and sheaves of grain. A doll, or corn mother, was created—often from the final sheaf to be threshed—and treated with great honor and reverence. The doll provided a place for the spirits of the grain to rest until the next harvest season rolled around. The more respect you paid to the corn doll, the more likely it was that the spirits of the fields would bless you with abundance and growth in the following year.

By the Middle Ages, Michaelmas soon became recognized as one of the so-called quarter days. The term is derived from a system in the British Isles in which four specific days each year were marked as a time to collect rents, hire new servants, and resolve legal matters. In England and Wales, the original quarter days were Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and Christmas—corresponding with the spring equinox, the summer solstice, the autumnal equinox, and the winter solstice, all of which were days of great significance for early Pagans.

Christian Adaptation

Man harvesting wheat with scythe
Peter Muller / Getty Images

During the medieval period, Michaelmas was considered one of the holy days of obligation for Christians, although that tradition ended in the 1700s. Customs included the preparation of a meal of goose which had been fed on the stubble of the fields following the harvest (called a stubble-goose). There was also a tradition of preparing special larger-than-usual loaves of bread, and St. Michael's bannocks, which was a special kind of oatcake.

By Michaelmas, the harvest was typically complete, and the next year's farming cycle would begin as landowners saw reeves elected from among the peasants for the following year. The reeve's job was to watch over the work and make sure everyone was doing their share, as well as collecting rents and donations of products. If a holding's rent fell short, it was up to the reeve to make it up—as you can imagine, no one really wanted to be reeve. This was also the time of year when accounts were balanced up, annual dues paid to local guilds, workers were hired on for the next season, and new leases taken for the following year.

Michaelmas was considered the official beginning of winter, which lasted until Christmas. It was also the time at which winter grains were sown, such as wheat and rye, for harvesting the following year. In a symbolic sense, because Michaelmas is so close to the autumnal equinox, and because it is a day to honor St. Michael's accomplishments, which include slaying a fierce dragon, it is often associated with courage in preparation for the darker half of the year. Michael was the patron saint of sailors, so in some seafaring areas, this day is celebrated with the baking of a special cake from the grains of the final harvest. 

Michaelmas Folklore

According to English legends, it's bad luck to pick blackberries after Michaelmas, because that's when the devil spits on them, making them unsuitable for eating by humans. In a custom that originated in the Victorian era, it's believed that any trees planted on Michaelmas would grow and flourish especially well. In Ireland, there's a custom that if you eat goose on Michaelmas, much like the stubble-goose tradition of old, you'll have an extra-lucky remainder of the year. Also, if the goose's bones are brown after you roast them, it means winter will be mild—however, if they're white, you're in for some extremely harsh and cold months ahead.