Celebrating St. Michael’s Day, on September 29th, is an old Irish custom going back to the earliest times of the Celts. It was the day to mark the end of the harvest. On this day each year farmers would count their animals and decide how many they could afford to keep and feed over the long winter ahead, and how many would have to be sold and sent to slaughter. It was also a tribute to honour the three archangels, Angel Michael, Angel Gabriel, and Angel Raphael.
The Autumn Wind blows open the gate
St. Michael for you we wait
We follow you, show us the way
With joy we greet this Autumn day
Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning!
Michaelmas, (pronounced “mick-el-miss”) or St. Michael’s Day, was also a day for traditional county fairs, and of job fairs, where farmers could hire winter labour, after the end of the harvest. Families gathered and spent the day together and then shared a feast of freshly baked bread, roast goose, potatoes, and a glass or two of beer or whiskey.
St. Michael’s Day marked the end of the fishing season, and the beginning of the hunting season, and a traditional goose dinner was served in Irish homes to mark the occasion. In many parts of Ireland, farmers gave gifts of geese to the poor, and they also sold their down and feathers on that day at the local fairs, to be used for mattresses and pillows.
It was a custom to bake a Michaelmas pie, and to hide a ring in the pie. Whoever got the piece with the ring would be married within the year. The pies were made with apples and blackberries, which were ripe and delicious in late September. According to old Irish folklore, at Michaelmas, the devil spits on the blackberries after September 29th, so that is the last day to eat them safely. Irish legends say, when St. Michael cast Satan from Heaven, the devil landed on the Earth in a patch of blackberry brambles and he returns each year to spit on the plant that tortured him.
Goose for the Feast
During the Middle Ages, St. Michael’s Day was a religious feast in most of western Europe, celebrating the end of the harvest. It was the custom to eat a goose on Michaelmas, and legend tells that this ritual was supposed to protect against financial need for the next year.
“He who eats goose on Michaelmas Day
shan’t money lack or debts to pay”
The roasted goose was supposed to be eaten up by midnight on September 30th, and the breastbone was used to foretell the weather for the coming winter by holding it up to the light. A translucent breastbone meant that the winter ahead would be mild, while a thick cloudy breastbone meant it would be a long cold winter.
Potatoes and carrots were roasted in the goose fat, and a slice or two of Irish soda bread was served with the meal. Toasts were made to St. Michael, with Irish whiskey.
Recipe for Michaelmas Pie
12 oz plain flour, sifted
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
3 oz lard
3 oz chilled butter, diced
3 fl oz chilled water
2 lbs cooking apples
2 oz sugar
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
12 oz blackberries
1 egg, beaten
Pre-heat the oven to 350 F.
Prepare the pastry. Place the flour in a mixing bowl and stir in the cinnamon and salt. Rub in the butter and lard until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Form a well in the centre and add the water. Mix together using a wire pastry blender, then knead briefly, and place in a plastic bag in the fridge. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.
Peel and core the apples. Cut them and place them in a saucepan with the sugar, cloves and nutmeg. Cover with a lid and gently simmer for 5 minutes, until the apples have softened. Next, fold in the blackberries and remove the saucepan from the heat. Cool the mixture.
Take pastry from the fridge and roll out two thirds on a lightly floured surface. Line an 8-inch metal pie plate. Pierce the base of the pastry with a fork. Strain the fruit, and spoon the fruit mixture over. Roll out the remaining pastry and lay the pastry over the fruit. Brush the base with a little egg and seal the edge. Trim and crimp the edges. Brush the surface with the remaining egg and with a knife make slits in the top. Bake for 35 minutes. Serve hot or cold with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream.
Is there a ‘Michael’
in your family?
The devotion to St. Michael in Ireland was so great, that at one time almost every family had a child named Michael. In 1923, Michael was the most popular name for boys in Ireland. In Catholic households, families with no boys would often give the name ‘Michael’ as a middle name for their daughters. At one time, it was not unusual for nuns to have the name of Sister Michael.
St. Michael is the Patron Saint of grocers, soldiers, doctors, mariners, paratroopers, and police, and it’s his responsibility to escort the faithful to heaven at their hour of death. He is known as the protector of humanity, who inspires the qualities of courage, initiative and steadfastness.
For those with Irish heritage, September 29th, or St. Michael’s Day, is a day that we may choose to observe some of the old ways of our ancestors. In North America we might cook a chicken instead of a goose, and may substitute with blueberries or raspberries in our Michaelmas pies.
Whether we celebrate with a traditional Michaelmas feast on September 29th, or just have a wee shot of whiskey and a toast to St. Michael, it’s a day to pause for a moment and remember our ancestors, and how they marked the end of the harvest, and the beginning of a new season.
Slainte! “To Your Health!”