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Thoughts on Michaelmas History

Happy Michaelmas! (pronounced "mickle-mas").  Michaelmas is celebrated September 29th.

This year we are doing a lot of Waldorf things in our homeschooling, so while we did observe the equinox, we're focusing on Michaelmas this year. Rudolf Steiner considered Michaelmas to be secondary only to Easter, and it is a big deal in Waldorf Schools as the first holiday of the school year.  A Waldorf Michaelmas celebration includes pageantry and rites of passage to acknowledge that the children are a year older now. There are a few Michaelmas songs in the books we chose about defeating evil, slaying dragons, and celebrating the role of angels in our lives.

Michael was the Christian archangel who defeated Lucifer and cast him out of heaven to the earth. One also recognizes all of the archangels on this day, for most of the Christian feast days are dedicated to Saints.

It is the traditional day to harvest the last of the blackberries, for the bush was said to break his fall, and Lucifer cursed it when he landed and spoiled all of the blackberries that ripen after this day.  England traditions vary on whether he spat on them or urinated on them, but either way, they become unsuitable to eat, so it's best to harvest them now!  It's a great day to bake a blackberry pie if your culinary skills are better than mine.

Michaelmas also marks the end and the beginning of the husbandry year. It is a time for hiring new farm help for the new year, and also the appropriate time to move on if your family situation calls for it. It is also a time for settling debts and paying creditors for things like rent. Michaelmas was a traditional time to butcher and eat a special "stubble goose" that had been fed on harvest leftovers in the field.  Some believe this is where the tradition of eating a turkey for Thanksgiving stems from, as turkey was generally unavailable in Europe, but became the staple feasting bird of choice after the American colonial period.

There are some who draw a strong connection between Michaelmas and earlier Pagan celebrations, but I think that these connections are exaggerated, just as I have found many of the supposed Christmas-Pagan traditions to be. Michaelmas, like Christmas, is an ancient holiday and has had plenty of time for establishing its own traditions without the need to "steal" anything from Paganism. Things like making corn dollies are a natural thing to be doing at this time of year, whether you are Pagan or not.  Michaelmas was a well-established holiday in Christianity before the northern ecclesiastical missions. But there were some pagan harvest traditions that survived through the holiday when Christianity took over in Northern Europe, and without many records of our own, Pagans have turned to early Christian writings about Michaelmas for clues of our early roots.

Celebrating near the equinoxes and solstices can hardly be claimed by Paganism alone.  Science does not belong to any one religion.  Traditionally, the equinox was a harvest time for the Northern Europeans, and certainly, there is a lot of literature about this important season of gathering in the crops, preparing for the winter. Naturally there were many superstitions and spiritual traditions that accompany such an important change of the seasons, including harvest feasts.  

While Mabon is the Wiccan name for the autumn equinox, it isn't an ancient holiday name at all. In the past, there wasn't really a Pagan holiday name for the equinox, and its observance was mostly secular. There were Pagans who wanted a Pagan-sounding name to differentiate their observance of the holiday from the mundane-sounding "autumn equinox" that might be celebrated by anyone.  But anciently, that was what the early Pagans called it.  Mabon himself was an ancient Welsh god, but his story doesn't really have any ties to September.  If anything, he was chosen for his parallels to the Archangel Michael during a season where the balance between dark and light is changing.  Mabon was a god of light who was defeated by his brother, a god of darkness, which seemed like a fitting hero for the turning of the year when winter approaches.  Mabon's story doesn't end there, for some say he was a real person.  Perhaps he was a Roman soldier, or one of King Arthur's knights.  There are many different stories.  

In contrast, Michael was an angel of light who defeated an angel of darkness, and while the devil may have had some power over the earth for a time, light prevails when Spring comes again.  The archetype of the hero defeating the dragon prevails on this day.  Michael defeated Satan, that old serpent.  St. George defeated the Dragon.  We in turn fight our own demons through our own bravery.

If you want an ancient, Northern European Pagan holiday that emphasizes the juxtaposition of darkness and light, Beltane and Samhain are more along those lines, I think.

While "Mabon" wasn't the name of any ancient harvest feast, Michaelmas does fit that bill.  And when I say "ancient", it's a relative term, seeing as Michaelmas is about 1500 years old, verses the 70 years of"Mabon". I do have a great deal of respect for Wiccans and the great deal of research they have contributed to modern Paganism. There isn't a lot of ancient sources for Paganism, and where there are holes, one can either speculate, bypass entirely, or reconstruct with new traditions, as many NeoPagans have done.  Despite its Southern European origins, I'm perfectly content with the story of Persephone as an appropriate Pagan story for the season, despite my Northern European roots.  I haven't felt particularly drawn or obligated to celebrate "Mabon", as much as the general autumn season.  But Michaelmas has a rich history that I am pleased to embrace this year, along with our own Christian heritage that accompanies it.

Further Reading


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