by Mike Oettle
MICHAELMAS (29 September) seems to be one of those forgotten festivals that most South Africans know nothing about – I’ve seldom given it much thought beyond Michaelmas daisies – yet in England it’s a significant turning point in the year. Perhaps the reason is that it’s seldom been fixed in custom as a marker of spring – whereas in England it marks off the beginning of autumn. Schools have a Michaelmas term, quarterly rents are collected at Michaelmas, and Michaelmas goose is a traditional delicacy.
It’s not strictly a saint’s day: in fact it’s an angels’ day. It appears on the calendar of the new Anglican Prayer Book as a festival, not a commemoration (most of the folk you’ll read about in these articles fall into the second category), and it’s listed as St Michael and All Angels. Apparently it slipped into the calendar because it was the patronal festival of a number of churches – certainly there’s no date one can fix in the life of a heavenly being.
Just how many archangels there are is not agreed, but Michael (“Who is like God”) is clearly the chief of them, and appears in the Old Testament (Daniel), the New Testament (Jude, Revelation) and even Islamic writing, and in the Middle Ages was regarded as the helper of Christian armies against the heathen. Rabbinic texts show him as God’s vice-regent, the heavenly high priest, the keeper of the keys of heaven, or the protector of Israel. Christian art shows him either with a sword, killing the dragon representing Satan (an image also transferred to St George), or with a pair of scales weighing the souls of the dead.
The archangel Gabriel (“man of God”) has his own feast day, 24 March, and he figures in the Old Testament (Daniel), the New Testament (Luke) and the Qur’an. In 1951 Pope Pius XII declared him patron of those involved in electronic communications (radio, television, telephone, telegraph), illustrating his function as messenger.
Also with a feast day of his own is the archangel Raphael (24 October), whose name means “God heals” and who is also a patron of travellers. (So is St Christopher, but I’ll write about this legendary figure another time.) Raphael, the guardian of human spirits, is found in the Apocrypha in the Book of Tobit and in the First Book of Enoch (not in the official Apocrypha).
The fourth archangel is Uriel (leader of the heavenly hosts and guardian of Sheol [the underworld]), who is not found in the writings of rabbinical Judaism, but is often to be found in other Jewish works written after the Old Testament was closed, as the ruler of the north, the angel of fire, earthquakes and thunder, and as the symbol of the heat of the day during winter.
The four archangels match up with the four throne guardians or seraphim mentioned as chief among the Old Testament angels, while mention is also sometimes made of other archangels, bringing the number up to seven or 12. I Enoch names seven, the others being Raguel (avenger against the planetary spheres), Sariel (avenger against sinning spirits), and Remiel or Jeremiel (guardian of the souls in Sheol).
Angels play an especially important role in the apocalyptic writings, only two of which are found in the Bible (Daniel and Revelation) and one in the Apocrypha (II Esdras), but which were of great importance to the early Church because they were largely the background out of which the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus emerged.
Also included in the first rank of angels, also called “thrones”, are the cherubim or throne-bearers. Besides these, the Old Testament mentions another kind, ofannim or “wheels”, while the Church later recognised others from references in Paul's letters: virtues, powers, principalities and dominions. The choir of angels, or the company of heaven, is said to be innumerable.
The Feast of Michaelmas was an important one during the Middle Ages, when it was often the occasion of a fair. A Michaelmas glove – a gigantic one two metres tall, made of leather and stuffed with cotton or wood chips – would be hung up to announce its beginning. The fair itself would draw merchants from great distances to trade in all manner of goods in a square or a building called (for the occasion) Pie Powder Court. Derived from the French pied poudre (dusty feet), this referred to the long roads travelled on foot, and was a court of justice for and by the travellers.
Feasts really were feasts in mediæval times, and the whole roasted Michaelmas goose – decorated with its own feathers after cooking to look as though it was alive – was an important part of this one. The bird was carried to the table of the lord of the manor in a procession with great ceremony on a platter decorated with autumn fruit and flowers. Those who did not have goose would have a roast chicken decorated with grey goose feathers, or a goose subtletie – a pastry-and-marzipan substitute. But all had to taste of it, for: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas and you will not want for money for a year.” In Ireland, finding a ring in one’s Michaelmas pie indicated an early marriage.
The last important part of the Michaelmas feast was ginger, which was used to flavour beer and wine (hence today’s ginger beer, et cetera), fish and sweetmeats.
But why celebrate Michaelmas? I quote: “The ultimate message still stands to remind us of the age-old battle between good and evil, and to ask us on which side we stand.”
 From Some Christian Festivals, by Elfrieda Vipont (Michael Joseph).
The angel Gabriel is also mentioned here.
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Comments, queries: Mike Oettle