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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Michaelmas: A Harvest Festival Of Yore

As summer turns to fall, I sometimes look into old traditions to cheer myself up. This year, I discovered Michaelmas. Although it's been forgotten over the years, it was once celebrated by English and Celtic peoples across the British Isles as the big annual harvest festival. We still hold harvest festivals to this day but they can't hold a candle to the harvest fests of yore. Here is a sample of what you might have might have experienced if you had to woken up late in September somewhere north of Liverpool:

The Eve of St Michael is the eve of bringing in the carrots, of baking the strūan' [a cake made of all the grains grown on the farm], of killing the lamb, of stealing the horses. The Day of St Michael is the Day of the early mass, the day of the sacrificial lamb, the day of the oblation 'strūan,' the day of the distribution of the lamb, the day of the distribution of the 'strūan,' the day of the pilgrimage to the burial-ground of their fathers, the day of the burial-ground service, the day of the burial-ground circuiting, the day of giving and receiving the carrots with their wishes and acknowledgments, and the day of the 'oda'--the athletics of the men and the racing of the horses. And the Night of Michael is the night of the dance and the song, of the merry-making, of the love-making, and of the love-gifts.

- Alexander Carmicheal

All that in just thirty-six hours--why, it's like six holidays in one.

Michaelmas, the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, is traditionally celebrated on September 29, and served as the chief harvest festival for the peoples of the British Isles until around the turn of the 19th century when many old ways ceased. But in more agrarian days, as the harvest season ended, Michaelmas was a time to relax (when not distributing the struan or gathering the carrots), share the fruits of the year's labors, dance, sing, and be grateful.

Feasts are always the centerpiece of any harvest festival, and Michaelmas was no exception. Traditional foods included an "unblemished" lamb or, more commonly, a goose. In fact, in one English town, curious cakes were sold, each with the imprint of a knight riding a goose. There is even a proverb about it:

Whoso eats goose on Michaelmas Day
Shall never lack money his debts to pay.

Golden eggs, anyone? Of course, viewed more prosaically, perhaps the family that can afford a goose on Michaelmas will have little trouble paying their debts. As for the poor, Michaelmas tradition held "that every husbandman in the townland should give, on the day of the St Michael Feast, a peck of meal, a quarter of struan, a quarter of lamb, a quarter of cheese, and a platter of butter to the poor and forlorn, to the despised and dejected, to the alms-deserving, and to the orphans without pith, without power, formed in the image of the Father everlasting." Now there's some Christian charity.

Not coincidentally, Michaelmas was also a time for settling up accounts and paying rent. In agricultural communities, barter was more common than coin, so it made sense that the time to tithe came at the end of the growing season, when people were at their most able to pay their debts. And wouldn't you know it? A lot of people paid in goose:

And when the tenants come to pay their quarter's rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose,
And somewhat else at New-year's tide, for fear their lease fly loose.

-George Gascoigne, 1575

Perhaps the oddest custom to modern ears is the gathering and exchanging of the carrots. Ancient Celts made a ritual of digging carrots on Michaelmas, after which it was customary for people to exchange them as gifts, whilst reciting such rhymes as "Progeny and prosperity on thy lying and rising" (on the part of the giver) and "Progeny and plenty without scarcity in thy dwelling" (or other such pleasantry, by the receiver).

In addition to paying one's bills, hunting season began at this time and ended at Candlemas on February 2. Man did not live on carrots alone, and for the poor and less well off, meat came from the woods and fields.

More importantly, there were games (probably of the Highland sort) and that's where the stealing of the horses comes in. On the eve of Michaelmas, it was customary and expected that someone would steal some of your horses, leaving you with the lousiest nag of the lot to get through the games on the following day. So everyone stole everyone else's horses but at the conclusion of the games, all horses were returned, keeping it all in good fun.

By the 19th century, a costumed procession or parade formed a part of the festivities, perhaps a remnant of the old Corn Doll tradition of the more distant past. As in many cultures, the women would fashion a doll out of corn husks and dress it in gown, apron, and hat. This doll would then lead the procession in from the fields, usually seated in state on a wagon or cart. There is an Icelandic corn goddess called Kirna. Some think the Corn Doll is part of an old ritual to her, with the doll taking the place of the sacrificial maiden or child from a darker past.

To close on a more positive note, there is also the belief that "for every leaf caught before it touches the ground between Michaelmas and Hallowe'en, one will have a perfectly happy day in the next year." Another good reason to stand under a tree and watch the leaves fall, as if the beauty of the season weren't enough.


The Book of Superstitions by Christine Chaundler, [1970]

Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, by Alexander Carmicheal, [1900]

The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs by T. Sharper Knowlson [1910]

Manners, Customs, and Observances: Their Origin and Significance by Leopold Wagner [1894]



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Carrots, and a recipe

The exchanging of the carrots seems a bit, uh, racy. The women go out into the fields and put carrots in the aprons? Obviously a new, hard, fresh carrot would be long anticipated after last year's carrots had gone limp. : )

Here's a recipe for "Struan" from Brother Juniper:

7 cups high-gluten bread flour
1/2 cup uncooked polenta*
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup wheat bran
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 tsp. salt -- preferably sea salt
2 Tbsp. instant yeast -- plus 1 tsp. instant yeast or 3 Tbsp. active dry yeast
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup buttermilk
1-1/2 cups warm water
1 egg
3 Tbsp. poppy seeds -- for loaf tops

* (coarsely ground cornmeal, or regular grind if you can't find coarse)

In a bowl mix 2 c. of flour and all the other dry ingredients, through yeast. Add the cooked brown rice, honey, buttermilk, and water. Beat for 2-3 minutes to mix well. With a wooden spoon, gradually add the rest of the bread flour (or as much as it takes).

Because Struan has so many whole grains, it takes longer to knead than most breads, usually 12 to 15 minutes by hand. The dough will change before your eyes, lightening in color, becoming gradually more elastic and evenly grained. The finished dough should be tacky but not sticky, lightly golden, stretchy and elastic rather than porridgelike. When you push the heels of your hands into the dough, it should give way but not necessarily tear. If it flakes or crumbles, add a little more water.

Wash out the mixing bowl and dry it thoroughly. Put in the dough and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap or place the bowl inside a plastic bag. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, until it has roughly doubled in size.

This recipe makes about 5 pounds of dough (81 ounces, to be exact); to make 3 loaves of 1-1/2 lb. each, cut the dough into 3 pieces -- each will weigh 27 oz. Roll up each piece into a loaf by pressing on the center with the heels of the hands and rolling the dough back over on itself until a seam is formed. Tuck all the pieces of dough or end flaps into the seam, keeping only one seam in the dough. Pinch off the seam, sealing it as best you can, and put the loaf, seam-side down, in a greased 9x4-1/2x3" loaf pan. Brush an egg wash solution (1 egg beaten into 4 c. water) on the top of each loaf and sprinkle the poppy seeds on top.

Cover and allow the dough to rise till it crests over the top of the pan. Bake in a 350° F oven (300° F in a convection oven) for approximately 45 minutes. The loaf should dome nicely and be a dark gold. The sides and bottom should be a uniform medium gold and there should be an audible, hollow thwack when you tap the bottom of the loaf.

If the bread comes out of the pan dark on top but too light or soft on the sides or bottom, take the loaf out of the pan, return it to the oven, and finish baking until it is thwackable. Bear in mind that the bread will cook much faster once it is removed from the pan, so keep a close eye on it.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly for at least 40 minutes before slicing it.

Recipe Source: Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor by Brother Peter Reinhart, Perseus Printing, 1993


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