Today is Michaelmas, or, more formally, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. In times past it was a very important day in the calendar marking the beginning of autumn (in the northern hemisphere), the end of the summer harvests, and, therefore a time for reckoning up – farm laborers got paid, as did rents. There were usually big fairs and festivals marking the turn of the season and the year. Thus, the date, although ecclesiastical in origin, was more about secular than religious celebration. New terms for law courts and universities began at that time, and so were called (and still are) Michaelmas term. Let’s deal with the religious angle first, then move to the secular.
Michael is an archangel in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic teachings. Many Christian denominations refer to him as “Saint Michael the Archangel” or simply “Saint Michael.” The theology is a bit confusing to me; I thought only humans could be saints. The term appears to be an honorific since he was never, nor could be, canonized.
In Hebrew, Michael means “who is like God?” Michael is mentioned three times in the book of Daniel, once as a “great prince who stands up for the children of your people.” The idea that Michael was the advocate of the Jews became so prevalent that in spite of the rabbinical prohibition against appealing to angels as intermediaries between God and his people, Michael came to occupy a place in the Jewish liturgy.
In the Greek scriptures Michael leads God’s armies against Satan’s forces in the Book of Revelation, where during the war in heaven he defeats Satan. In the Epistle of Jude , Michael is specifically referred to as an “archangel.” Christian sanctuaries to Michael appeared in the 4th century, when he was first seen as a healing angel, and then over time as a protector and the leader of the army of God against the forces of evil. By the 6th century, devotions to Archangel Michael were widespread both in the Eastern and Western Churches. Over time, teachings on Michael began to vary quite widely among Christian denominations. Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, for example, treat Michael as identical with Christ in heaven, whereas Mormons equate him with Adam.
Numerous cathedrals and churches are named for St Michael and he is celebrated in countless works of art.
In Bach’s time, the feast of Michael and all the angels was celebrated with a festive service, for which Bach composed several cantatas, for example the chorale cantata Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (1724).
According to an old legend in the British Isles, blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas. This is because, so folklore goes, Satan was banished from Heaven on this day (thrown out by Michael), and fell into a blackberry bush, cursing the brambles as he fell into them. In Yorkshire, it is said that the devil spat on them when he landed. In Cornwall, a similar legend prevails, however, the saying goes that the devil urinated on them. Whatever the case, it is considered bad luck to eat blackberries after Michaelmas, so it was common to make blackberry pies and preserves on that day.
At this time of year, the Aster blooms, and so in Britain has become known as the Michaelmas Daisy. The Michaelmas Daisy comes in many autumnal colors, from white to pink to purple, and can be found both wild and domesticated. An old verse goes:
The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous d