Michaelmas Day – a traditional harvest festival day – falls on the 29 September and marks the fourth quarter of the year, a bountiful time in the vegetable garden, pertinent for feasting. Much like modern day harvest festivals. At one time, it was the day on which rents were settled and mayors elected, and for centuries, it was a feast day for almost everyone in the country. Here we’ve focused on customs that capture the imagination and recreate the tradition and romance of the Michaelmas feast. Perhaps this autumn, you and your family and friends can get together to celebrate a harvest festival and add your own traditions into the mix.
Creating Michaelmas traditions
Michaelmas comes hard on the heels of harvest festival so it’s natural we strayed into some harvest customs, surrounded as we are by a garden full of produce and farmers working at full-tilt in nearby fields. Harvest festival, traditionally celebrated on the Sunday closest to the harvest moon, has been a fixture of the church calendar since Rev Robert Stephen Hawker, a Cornish clergyman, came up with the idea in 1843. Over time it gradually supplanted Michaelmas as the main harvest celebration. For our feast everyone brought produce that they had in plenty, and took away anything they were short of – a sort of harvest swap shop.
Galleon in the trees
I love the tale about Elizabeth I dining on goose when news was brought to her of the destruction of the Spanish Armada. She is reputed to have resolved to eat another goose on Michaelmas Day. In reality goose had been eaten at Michaelmas long before 1588, but the image was so alluring we decided to dress a model galleon in her honour with dahlias, Michaelmas daisies and hawthorn leaves and hang it from a richly berried branch of out hawthorn tree.
It is the Devil himself who is responsible for making it unlucky to pick blackberries after Michaelmas Day. According to folklore, when he was banished from heaven and fell from the sky, he landed on a blackberry bush. Imagining the state anyone would be in after landing on a blackberry bush. I think it’s natural enough that he cursed the fruit and renews the curse each year.
As another nod to Queen Bess, we covered ‘an Elizabethan crown’ in moss and Clematis vitalba (old man’s beared), and ‘bejeweled’ it with Chrysanthemum ‘Paul Bossier’, Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’, Symphoricarpos albus (snowberries) and sloes. Then hung it from the pear arch in the kitchen garden. it was the finishing post for our ‘horse race’ (see below), and the winner was given the honour of carrying it in the procession to the feast.
We turned an old custom of horse racing on Michaelmas Day into a game for the children. They made horse masks by covering cardboard bases, cut to shape, with leaves and berries and straw attached with a glue gun. Adjustable elastic made them fit for racing in – no matter what the child’s head size. The children raced around a circuit from the orchard, around the house to the kitchen garden. Rather pleased with their slightly disturbing appearance, they played a memorable game of hide and seek long after the feast had finished, ending only once dusk fell.