St. Michael, the chief of the angels, is a familiar figure for many Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Some Christians will honor the archangel tomorrow on the festival day of St. Michael and All Angels, also known as Michaelmas. Gabriel, Raphael, and other angels are also revered on this day. (Many Orthodox Christians celebrate the angels on November 8.)
St. Michael is an angelic warrior, best known for fighting and vanquishing Satan. His name means “who is like God” in Hebrew, and he is also called “Captain of the Heavenly Host” and “the vanquisher of evil spirits.” In art, St. Michael is typically depicted as an armed warrior carrying a shield and a sword or spear, with Lucifer under his heel.
A traditional prayer celebrates the angel protector and leader of heaven’s armies:
Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Keep reading for ten things you didn’t know about St. Michael and his festival day.
You may have heard that St. Michael was one of the “voices” that led Joan of Arc. But did you know that the Golden Legend (a popular medieval collection of biographies of the saints) identifies St. Michael as the one who brought the plagues upon Egypt, separated the Red Sea, and led the people of Israel through the desert to the Promised Land?
St. Michael is commonly known as a protector, and so it is no surprise that the archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, knights, police officers, mariners, and paramedics. In addition to protecting our protectors, St. Michael is the patron saint of horses and horsemen. Michaelmas is sometimes celebrated by holding horse races.
Your (k)night light
St. Michael and All Angels falls near the autumn equinox, the end to the long, sunny days of summer. As fall begins, the days shorten and there is a greater time of darkness. St. Michael is considered the protector against the dark of night.
In medieval England, Michaelmas was observed as one of the Quarter Days. Each of the four Quarter Days fell on a religious holiday near a change of the seasons. St. Michael and All Angels was a time to complete the harvest, settle debts, pay rent, and elect magistrates. Even today, many legal and university terms still begin at this time. The US Supreme Court’s Term begins each year on the first Monday of October, just following the holiday.
The traditional Michaelmas dinner was a goose that had been fattened on the stubble from the fields after they had been harvested. Sometimes called Goose Day, Michaelmas marked the end of the fishing season and the start of the hunting season. Much like the New Year’s tradition of eating black-eyed peas, it was believed that dining on goose on St. Michael and All Angels would ensure prosperity in the coming year. A folk saying championed, “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, want not for money all the year.” A German tradition held that one could even predict the weather from the Michaelmas goose’s breastbones.
As goose was a customary dinner on the day that rent was due, it can come as no surprise that more than a few tenants gifted their landlords with a goose when they submitted payment, in the hopes of a little leniency. 16th century poet George Gascoigne immortalized the tradition:
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.
Wild carrots are harvested on Michaelmas with a tri-pronged digging tool called a mattock, which represents St. Michael’s trident spear. The triangular hole dug with the mattock symbolizes the angel’s shield. Irish celebrations of St. Michael and All Angels often include a Michaelmas Pie. Observers bake a ring into the pie, and tradition holds that the person who finds the ring will soon be married. In Scottish celebrations, it is common to make St. Michael’s Bannock, a scone-like cake. Also called Struan Micheil, all of the Bannock must be eaten before the night ends.
St. Michael and All Angels falls at the time of the apple harvest. Young girls used to gather crab apples at the beginning of September and arrange them in the shapes of the initials of the boys they admired. Whichever initials were still clear on Michaelmas Day were believed to indicate their true love.
The Michaelmas Daisy is a symbol of St. Michael that was named in his honor. The flowers grow late in the season and symbolize goodbyes, just as Michaelmas indicates the end of the harvest season. The bright flowers fight the gloom of the growing autumn darkness, an apt symbol for the protector against the dark of night. The custom of plucking flower petals and reciting “He loves me, he loves me not” originated with Michaelmas Daisies.
Legend holds that when St. Michael vanquished Lucifer, he fell from heaven into a blackberry bush. Lucifer cursed and spat on the blackberries, rendering them inedible, and so Michaelmas is customarily the last day of the season to pick blackberries. An Irish proverb states, “On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on blackberries.”