Monday, 29 September 2008

Michaelmas, an autumn festival

Today is Michaelmas Day: known in the Christian church as the festival of St Michael and All Angels it is, more simply, the feast of St Michael, the Prince of Angels. The Archangel Michael was a scary being. No messenger he. No, he commanded the War in Heaven. He could be portrayed as quite terrible in that old sense of the word: causing terror.

Marble statues of angels are pure white, beautiful and perfect of face and body. And paintings too show us angels with beautific expressions, golden auras, flowing white robes and golden wings and so we think of them as guiding man kindly between birth and death. There is supposed to be a unity of men and angels, the natural and the supernatural, and in days or yore this unity was celebrated on Michaelmas Day.

But the festival of St Michael that most of us are aware of is that of celebrating the end of harvest. To quote my blog of last year: it was on this day that servants were hired, farms changed hands and magistrates were appointed. And many tenant farmers presented their landlord with a goose as a gift or sometimes in lieu of rent. A goose was a gift to prize: dried, salted or pickled it would last through winter and roasted goose was a meal to celebrate with.

You can simply look in my blog archive (in the right hand column) to read what more I said then so I shan’t repeat myself. Very often the only time we remember Michaelmas now is when we think of the Michaelmas daisy. The daisy was that simple white flower with a yellow centre first mentioned in literature by Chaucer. The cultivated ones we know best are the asters in shades of rose red and varying shades of mauve that are such a welcome splash of colour in our borders at this time of year.

These perennials – given some sun and half decent soil – will grow nearly anywhere including coastal regions. But, beware, they can become very annoyingly invasive and absolute stink to get rid of. However, they are like manna from heaven to wildlife and worth giving a forgotten corner to just for that. Bees, butterflies and seed loving birds like finches absolutely love them, as do they the sedums that are so colourful now.

The sight of Michaelmas daisies in flower reminds us that autumn is approaching. Rosy apples fall from the tree, cobnuts and hazel nuts (those the squirrels have not filched) are collected, blackberries fruit in the hedgerows and leaves begin to turn colour. John Keats (1795-1821) describes this time of year beautifully in his ode, To Autumn. Here is the first verse:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


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