Autumn Equinox and Michaelmas: Festival Facts and Celebrations

Updated on September 11, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer who is interested in spirituality and religion. She enjoys celebrating festivals related to these topics.

Michaelmas daisies
Michaelmas daisies | Source

September Festivals

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.

Stonehenge is an important monument for modern druids, though it was built long before the Celts arrived in Britain and the first druids appeared.
Stonehenge is an important monument for modern druids, though it was built long before the Celts arrived in Britain and the first druids appeared. | Source

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 23rd. 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.

Nature in the fall
Nature in the fall | Source

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 (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). Used the pressed 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.

Angelic hierarchy in the Florence Baptistry
Angelic hierarchy in the Florence Baptistry | Source

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.

An example of bannock (though not of Saint Michael's Bannock)
An example of bannock (though not of Saint Michael's Bannock) | Source

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.

Blackberries are nutritious and delicious but can be painful to pick.
Blackberries are nutritious and delicious but can be painful to pick. | Source

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 "Angel of Victory" statue in Vancouver was created by Coeur de Lion MacCarthy.
The "Angel of Victory" statue in Vancouver was created by Coeur de Lion MacCarthy. | Source

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. They ripened so early this year that there may not be any left by the end of September, but I'll try collecting and freezing some before then. I can also get frozen blackberries in some stores.
  • 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 Daises 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 daises 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.

References

  • 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

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        32 hours ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Mel. Yes, although some people don't like to think about the idea, pagan holidays have been incorporated into Christianity. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        32 hours ago from San Diego California

        Pagan and Christian festivals are more closely linked than a lot of Christians will admit. In many cases Christians coopted the pagan holidays and then linked them with a saint, in order to give them a Christian flavor. Easter, for instance, follows lunar cycles and the name itself is a throwback to a pagan deity. Our Christian celebrations still follow significant events in the astronomical cycle, usually revolving around equinoxes.

        Great article. Here in the US we really don´t celebrate St. Michaels. I am a Catholic, and perhaps St. Michaels is a holy day of obligation, but it is really not much of a big deal here.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        2 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Maren. It is interesting that the global climate strikes are happening at this time. I hope they are effective. The Earth needs our help.

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        2 days ago from Pennsylvania

        Linda C, your article really spoke to me - especially all your obvious desire to protect the environment. Isn't it interesting that the worldwide Climate Strikes are occuring on either side of the equinox? Keep informing and inspiring us!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Cynthia. I think Druidry is interesting, too. I like much of what is involved in the movement, but I can't call myself a druid. Some druid groups seem to be open minded about the fact that people have different ideas and follow different practices, but this may not be true for all of them.

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 

        7 days ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        Linda, this was very interesting for me to read.

        We have a son who has been running 'druidry' past us lately-- sending me videos with the comment "very interesting". I am trying to be open-minded and respectful but it helped to read what you have written. The videos are old and have a sort of mystical voice-over that irritates me. You, on the other hand, I trust for gracious facts and like information.

        I also enjoyed learning about the link to nature/the harvest of both events. I think I will go out and do some meditation and perhaps other of your suggestions. Your writing just seems to be getting better and better. Thank you.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit, Devika. Autumn can be be an interesting time.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        7 days ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        September in Croatia is cooler and sunny and days shorter and in October leaves start to fall off the trees. I like your hub and it shows me he difference in the from our place to yours.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Denise. Thanks for the visit and the comment. The idea about throwing out something harmful at Michaelmas is one of my ideas for celebrating the festival. It's not typically associated with the day, but it makes sense to me and fits into my life.

        Blessings to you as well. I hope the rest of week goes well for you.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile image

        Denise McGill 

        8 days ago from Fresno CA

        This is some pretty awesome information. Although I heard many of these things about the Druids, I don't believe I knew much of the info on Michaelmas. Especially about throwing out something harmful on that day. Sounds like a good practice to me. Thanks.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I would love to visit Stonehenge, too. It would be wonderful to see it during a special event in nature. Thanks for the comment, Heidi.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        8 days ago from Chicago Area

        Autumn is my favorite time of the year! I would LOVE to celebrate either the autumn or spring equinox at Stonehenge someday. I'm just fascinated by it's history... or should we say mystery. Thanks for this in-depth look at this wonderful time of the year!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Shaloo. Thanks for the visit. I think they're interesting festivals. I enjoy celebrating them.

      • swalia profile image

        Shaloo Walia 

        8 days ago from India

        It's interesting to know about these festivals. I had never heard of them before.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I appreciate your comment very much, Pamela. I enjoy celebrating autumn festivals. I think that fall is a lovely time of year, especially the early part of the season.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        9 days ago from Sunny Florida

        This is a fascinating article about the festivals this time of year. The Druids is not something I knew much about really, so I found your article to be so interesting. There are a lot of festivals in the autumn, which is my favorite time of year. I love reading your articles as they are often about something I haven't previously known.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for such a nice comment, Mary.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Bill. I appreciate your kindness.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. Some nice events happen in September and October. It's an interesting time of year. I hope you have a wonderful day, too.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Liz. Michaelmas has an interesting history. It's fun to explore.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        9 days ago from Ontario, Canada

        Thank you for the introduction to this very interesting festival and the explanation on Druids. I enjoyed it immensely.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        9 days ago from Olympia, WA

        No joking around, and this isn't me just trying to be nice...Linda, you always post fascinating articles, and I appreciate it.

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 

        9 days ago from Massachusetts

        Very interesting and educational. Autumn is clearly my favorite time of the year and the abundance of festivals just adds to it. I was not familiar with the Michaelmas Festival, but I am familiar with archangel Michael, which we have seen many statues of throughout Europe. As always, thank you for the education and have a wonderful day.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        9 days ago from UK

        This is a detailed explanation of these Autumnal festivals. I have often wondered what the Michaelmas term referred to at Oxford and Cambridge.

      • Lora Hollings profile image

        Lora Hollings 

        9 days ago

        A really wonderful article Linda! I never really new much about the Druids. But like you, I like their belief about nature being important and having a relationship with the earth and being responsible toward it and its inhabitants. I never had heard of Michaelmas before. But, now on Sept.29 I will have to do something to celebrate this holiday as well as the Autumn Equinox. You give some wonderful suggestions for celebrating these festivals! I will go for a nature hike that day and bring a sketch pad along to draw a tree or a beautiful flower that I may come upon. And what a great idea to celebrate Michaelmas by not only getting rid of a lot of clutter in our lives, and giving somethings that we may no longer use any more to others who would love them and get much enjoyment from them. Thanks for sharing the origins, the interesting history, and the way that these festivals are celebrated today!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Flourish. I like the nature connection, too.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        9 days ago from USA

        This was version interesting and I learned a lot about a holiday some recognize but I had never heard of. I like the nature connection.

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