Autumn Equinox and Michaelmas: Festival Facts and Celebrations
Two Festivals in September
Where I live, September is an interesting and lovely month. Summer memories are still fresh and fall's beauty has begun to show. I enjoy celebrating two festivals during the month: the autumn equinox and Michaelmas. In this article, I describe the background of each festival and some ways in which they have been or could be celebrated. Though the main reason for the celebration of each event is different, in practice they have some features in common. These features are related to the harvest.
The first festival is a pagan celebration, and the second is Christian. I have eclectic spiritual beliefs. I sometimes find an important metaphorical meaning or good advice in the information presented by the Druidry strand of paganism or the Anglican variety of Christianity. I don't consider it strange to celebrate a pagan festival one day and a Christian festival about a week later.
The festivals and Druidry facts described below are linked to UK history, though other parts of the world likely played a role in their development. Today the festivals and Druidry are found in North America and other places as well as in the United Kingdom.
What Is Druidry?
Druidry is my favourite strand of paganism because it emphasizes the importance of nature. It’s often referred to as a nature spirituality. Modern Druidry is based on pre-Christian beliefs and practices in the UK, as far as they are known or are assumed to have existed and as far as seems ethical today. Some of the old practices have been modified to suit modern society and new ideas have become incorporated into the movement.
Druidry stresses a relationship with nature as well as responsible behaviour (according to the person’s definition of the term) towards the Earth and its inhabitants. As in Christianity, specific beliefs vary, especially with respect to the nature of deity. Druidry is generally polytheistic, although druids have different ideas about whether the gods literally exist. Some people have both druid and Christian beliefs and are monotheistic.
The seeds of modern Druidry appear to have been sown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Despite the name of the movement, little is known about the original druids. They were part of the Celtic culture and lived in the Iron Age. In Britain, the Iron Age lasted from approximately 800 BC to 43 AD. The druids of the time seem to have been respected teachers and judges in their society, but there is much uncertainty about their practices.
At the moment, the most common convention is to capitalize the names of the different versions of paganism but not the words "paganism" or "pagan". Opinions differ about the whether the name for the followers of a specific variety of paganism (such as "druids") should be capitalized. Hopefully, the capitalization issue will be settled soon.
The Autumn Equinox or Alban Elfed
It’s known that the cycle of nature during the year was very important to earlier people because they were dependent on the natural world for their survival. The festivals in Druidry are related to this cycle. Even today, when many of us have ways of dealing with the problems presented by the different seasons, the cycle is important.
For some people, the autumn equinox is simply a celestial event. For modern pagans, it’s also time for a celebration. It occurs on or around September 21st. This year it will take place on September 22nd. An equinox is the time when the sun is located directly above the equator of the Earth, causing day and night to be roughly the same length. After the fall equinox, days become shorter and nights longer. This change was significant for our agricultural ancestors.
Druids frequently refer to the autumn equinox as Alban Elfed, which they translate as “The Light of the Water”. The name was created by one of the founders of modern Druidry, probably in an attempt to create a more evocative name than Autumn Equinox. The festival is sometimes referred to as Mabon, though this is more common in Wicca, another strand of paganism. I prefer the term Harvest Home, one of the other modern names for the festival, because it seems to me to be an accurate description of the time of year and the celebration.
The harvest moon is the full moon nearest to the autumn equinox. It usually occurs in September.
Celebrating the Autumn Equinox
Celebrating a festival can be an enjoyable and meaningful event. It can reinforce or clarify our beliefs and values and stimulate the development of new ideas. The druid celebration of the autumn equinox varies, though generally thanks is given for the harvest.
The list below gives some ideas for people who want to celebrate the equinox. It includes things that I do.
- Visit a favourite spot in nature. Contemplate the scene, meditate, or pray, according to your inclination or beliefs.
- Photograph, draw, or paint a scene or an item in the area. Create music if you prefer.
- Write a prose description or a poem about what you see or about what the moment in time means to you.
- Consider starting a nature journal. If you already have one, create an autumn equinox entry.
- Perform yoga, take a meditative walk, or perform another form of exercise in nature.
- Collect items such as fallen cones, empty sea shells, and interesting stones to create a piece of art. If you have a home altar, as some people do, the items or art could be an appropriate decoration. Even without an altar, the artwork could be an attractive or interesting decoration for a home.
- A potted plant could also be a good addition to an altar or home at this time of year because it represents life. It also represents the hope that though winter may be a difficult time, nature will survive.
- If you discover an organization or group that is trying to solve problems in nature, consider helping it in some way.
- Create flowers to press or dry (as long as you don’t decimate the population) or forage in the wild for food (as long as you are positive that the food that you are collecting is safe to eat). Use the pressed or dried flowers for display, art, or crafts.
- Greet or toast the official time of the equinox in your location on your own or with family or friends. Use a non-alcoholic beverage if you prefer. Say an appropriate prayer or make an affirmation as the equinox arrives.
- Celebrate with a meal made of whole foods produced from the Earth, such as locally-grown vegetables and fruits. If you include a grain product in your meal, try to find one that is produced locally, even if its ingredients aren’t. Transport of food over long distances can cause environmental problems.
- Visit a farmers market if one is available around the time of the equinox and buy local food.
- Do some research about plants that can be grown in a garden or in a container in fall. Plant them at an appropriate time.
- Consider your personal harvest. Assess what you have accomplished in the past year, how this has or is affecting you, and any improvements or changes that you need to make.
Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels
In the Anglican tradition, Michaelmas is also known as the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. The name of the festival is pronounced mick-el-mus. It takes place on September 29th and honours the behaviour of an angel named Michael.
According to traditional Christian beliefs, angels are heavenly beings who act as protectors, guides, and messengers from God. They resemble humans but bear wings (unless they are disguised). An archangel is one with a high rank. The number of archangels varies according to different traditions. Michael is one of them and is often depicted as the leader of all the angels.
In the Revelations 12:7 section of the Bible, Michael defeats Satan and throws him and his supporters out of Heaven. This gives Michael great importance to some Christians. He is associated with protection and is sometimes known as Saint Michael.
Historical Michaelmas Events and Customs
The story about Saint Michael is unrelated to nature or the harvest. The time of year when Michaelmas is celebrated meant that historically it was associated with the harvest as well as with angelic action, however.
In the middle ages, Michaelmas was one of the quarter days. These occurred every quarter of the year (or every three months) at the time of the equinoxes and the solstices. They were the times when tenants had to pay their rents and when new servants were hired. They were also associated with the start of the new term at Oxford and Cambridge University and with the activities of legal societies.
A goose was traditionally eaten at Michaelmas. It was thought that if people ate the bird during the festival, they wouldn't lack money for an entire year. A special bread was also associated with the festival, at least in Scotland, where it was made on Michaelmas Eve. The bread is still made today and is called St. Michael's Bannock or Struan Micheil. It's a round loaf that is traditionally unleavened. In earlier times, it was made from grain that was locally harvested, such as oats, rye, and barley.
Michaelmas pie is thought to have been part of the celebration as well. An Irish tradition said that if you found the ring hidden in the pie you would soon be married. It's uncertain whether the pie was a savory one or a sweet one. It may have contained apples and blackberries, which would both have been available in September.
Old Michaelmas Day and the Devil's Curse
In September of 1752, Britain switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian one to match the system used in most of Europe. September had to be a short month to align the calendar with the rest of the continent. Wednesday, September 2nd was immediately followed by Thursday, September 14th. Eleven days were therefore lost from the year.
As a result of the calendar change, Michaelmas was temporarily held on October 10th (or the 11th according to some reports). Today this is known as Old Michaelmas Day.
Legend said that when the devil was expelled from Heaven, he eventually landed on a blackberry bush. This event is often associated with Old Michaelmas Day instead of the present one. The fall was a painful experience for the devil due to the plant's thorns and prickles. In anger, he spat on the berries, stamped on them, and in some versions of the story even urinated on them. This made them unfit for human consumption. As a result, it was said that Old Michaelmas Day was the last day on which blackberries could be safely eaten. Apparently, it was believed that the devil renewed his curse each year.
The Michaelmas Term shall begin on 1 October and shall consist of eighty days, ending on 19 December.— The Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge
Celebrating Michaelmas Today
Today Michaelmas seems to be mentioned mainly in church services, at least where I live. It is used in the names of certain events held close to September 29th, however, such as a recent Michaelmas music festival at a school, a Michaelmas conference about music, and a Michaelmas ball and dinner with a Pride and Prejudice theme. The term is used as a marker for time, as it is by the University of Cambridge. The quote from the university shown above is a current statement. I like to celebrate the event in other ways, including those listed below.
Though I don't believe the story of an angel flinging the devil out of Heaven, expulsion of evil from wherever it resides is an important concept. It seems like an excellent reason for a celebration (although in the Bible story, Satan lands on the Earth, which may not be such good news). I celebrate the event by considering whether there is something that I should remove from my life, by eating foods associated with the festival, and by once again looking at nature.
- Michaelmas could be a good time to toss something harmful out of your life, though without hurting someone else. Examples include an unhealthy dietary choice, an unhealthy or unwise habit, or an expensive habit that provides little benefit to you.
- Other things that could be tossed out (preferably without harming the planet) include clutter and junk from a home, yard, or workplace and noxious weeds or decaying fruit from a garden.
- There may be even more potentially harmful objects in a home that could be discarded, such as expired medicines, old cosmetics and cleaning products that may no longer be safe or effective, and even old containers of food that have been accidentally hidden and forgotten.
- The prickles of blackberries are painful, as the devil discovered, but the plant produces nutritious fruits that are a good choice for a Michaelmas meal. I can pick wild blackberries in several areas near my home, which I do as soon as they're ripe. The freshly picked berries are delicious. Frozen blackberries are available in some of my local stores, but I prefer the fresh ones.
- A pie with fall fruit such as apples and blackberries can be delicious and could be a lovely addition to a Michaelmas meal. For special occasions, I sometimes make a raw pie crust from nuts, dates, and a little salt. I grind and mix the ingredients in a food processor, press the mixture into a pie plate, and then freeze or refrigerate the plate so that the crust becomes firm. I add a cold filling of fruit just before serving the pie in order to stop or at least slow the passage of liquid into the crust. Doing a web search for “raw pie crust” should display some interesting recipes. The crust is nutritious but high in calories. It’s wonderful for a special treat, though.
- If you don't want to make a pie—or even if you do—you could make St. Michael's Bannock. Recipes are available on multiple websites.
- Buying the traditional Michaelmas goose is not appropriate for me, since I’m a vegetarian. Vegan chicken or turkey can act as a substitute if you don't eat meat.
Michaelmas Daisies or Asters
I must admit that one of the reasons why I like Michaelmas is the appearance of the flower named after the event. Looking at Michaelmas daisies on or near September 29th is a personal way for me to celebrate the festival.
Several types of aster are known as Michaelmas daisies, but the one associated with St. Michael is Aster amellus. The species is native to Europe. It has pretty flowers that often have a rich blue colour but are sometimes pink. It blooms from late summer to the middle of autumn (often from July to October).
Planting Michaelmas daisies in a garden could provide a good way to celebrate festival. The flower is a lovely sight. It's often considered to be a symbol for a departure. In this case, the departure is a farewell to the growing season. The verse about the flowers below is an old one with an unknown author. The festival mentioned in the last line takes place on October 28th.
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.— Unknown
The Value of Festivals
Festivals with a spiritual or religious significance can be interesting and meaningful to celebrate. They provide variety in the routine of life and may remind us of significant events. The special activities can help us connect to something that is important to us. Some festivals in a tradition may have no attraction for us, but others may be worthwhile, comforting, or even inspiring.
The harvest is associated with many festivals around the world. Even without any spiritual meaning, they may remind us of the importance of food from plants that people and the Earth grow. I think that's a valuable outcome.
- Introduction to druidry from the Order of Bards, Ovates, & Druids (As in Christianity, different variations of druidry exist. This introduction to druidry comes from a large organization in the UK, but other druid groups with slightly different ideas exist.)
- Iron Age in Britain from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
- Facts about Michaelmas from Historic UK
- Michaelmas Day from Project Britain
- Term dates from the University of Cambridge (including information about the Michaelmas term)
© 2019 Linda Crampton