Michaelmas time, Michaelmas time,
Time is turning under the plough,
Under the stars, under the signs,
The ploughman toils with deep furrowed brow.
He turns his thoughts against the cold,
Buries his fears ‘neath earth’s deep mould,
Frost like fire burns white on the blade,
Of his iron share that red fire made.
Positioned at the threshold between summer and winter, Michaelmas (the 29th of September – modern calendar) heralds the turning point of the year, a pivot upon which the see-saw of the seasons teeters and topples, this time towards the dark, colder months. It is one half of the axis, which along with Easter cuts the year exactly in half.
When I think of Michaelmas I can’t help but think of Blackberries, after Michaelmas the devil is said to piss over them, others will tell you he fell on the bramble, cursing them in the process, when kicked down the holy stairs by the Archangel Michael after whom the day is named, although previously it was known as All Saints day. After Michaelmas, Blackberries start turning and start going mushy on the bramble, there is always a grain of truth to be found in these old wives tales!
Michaelmas, along with Christmas, Easter and St Johns eve were known traditionally as the agricultural ‘quarter days’ when rent, bills and debts were paid, the work force renegotiated and so on. I’m sure it’s no coincidence these days fall close to the solstices and equinoxes, and we should bear in mind there is little evidence for the solstices or equinoxes ever being observed by our ancestors in any way and the ‘public’ holidays would have also been the Witchy holidays….although they sought the deeper truths behind the season.
Goose has become traditional fare for Michaelmas as it made a worthy bribe for landowners for late payment of debts, bills and so on. Other sources suggest Goose became traditional after Queen Elizabeth I was said to be eating Goose when she learned of the British victory over Spain and vowed to eat goose every Michaelmas thereafter.
For me, however the Goose is a symbol of Winter, Old Mother Goose, Dame Holda flying across the clear winter sky, covering the world in frost and snow, as the raging Wild hunt pursues her, the horde of hounds, savage, dark and indiscriminate. Around this time of year many of our Geese begin their winter migrations in their characteristic V shaped formation, their loud squawking which seems to summon the autumn mists from the lakes and rivers they had made home for the summer. Look up during those cold nights and you can see old Mother Goose making her way across the sky as the constellation Cygnus (OK so mythologically Cygnus was a Swan but I’m taking some poetic license!) one of the more prominent September constellations.
Orchard fruits are also traditional; the first apple and pear harvests start in Kent around the end of September and cider festivals take place across the county. Traditionally the first apples (Michaelmas Apples) were used as divination tools:
Take apples and cut them, and by them you shall know how it shall go that year; spiders shew a naughty year, flies a merry year, maggots a good year, nothing in them portends great death
Now is also the time to harvest Angelica (Sacred to the Archangel Michael) provided it’s not too old and woody and of course the Michaelmas daisy. I also recently I discovered that over 80% of the UK’s wheat crops are also sown around autumn having better yields than spring sown…something worth considering.
I find this time of year to be a strange time. I often experience a lull in energy and an overwhelming desire to rest, to put my feet up and just enjoy the turning tides…it is the official end to the harvest after all. We put the garden to bed, collect seeds for next year and dig over the veg patch, plant bulbs for spring and set about preserving what we can; freezing, pickling, jamming, fermenting, drying and so on. We celebrate with Elderberry wine, Goose breasts stuffed with prunes and apricots, braised red cabbage with apples, crispy roast potatoes (cooked in the goose fat of course!), with carrots and runner beans from the garden, lashings of red wine gravy and rowan jelly. Dessert has to be Apple and Blackberry pie. Ritual is simple…the laying aside of burdens, payment of debts, reflecting on all that’s been accomplished, all that has not, the flame is extinguished…the cauldron upturned, womb becomes tomb and with a big sigh I give thanks for and bid farewell to an amazingly glorious and productive summer!