What is Michaelmas?
"Netherfield Park is let at last! and the gentleman who is to take it, will take possession before Michaelmas."
—Pride and Prejudice.
I am sure many of you who follow my work, know that I have a new release, called Married by Michaelmas. In my novel, Louisa Waverly’s rather domineering Mama mentions her expectations that her daughter will be married by Michaelmas, although she ends up running away from home, and spending the holiday season with her uncle instead! But I chose Michaelmas as a date because it was moderately important to the Georgians as a time period marker, (even if it was not celebrated with the fanfare that we treat Christmas) and because it was an important day to people living in the Regency era.
Michaelmas is mentioned as a ‘marker’ of time/season/date in Austen’s books twelve times, one of which is quoted above, as well as in her letters. So, the date being so important to Jane, it occurred to me that perhaps a short blog on Michaelmas would be in order, to explain what might be a mysterious Georgian-era, and definitely Austenian, cultural fixture.
Country life very much revolved about the seasons and the religious holidays which went hand-in-hand with these. This was a significant day business and legally wise, because Michaelmas was when labourers received their harvest wages, servants renewed their yearly contracts, rents were due or contracts expired, school and university terms began, and court sessions began again in parliament.
In truth, Michaelmas has been a religious holidays for centuries, and was observed as far back as the Middle Ages. It was usually observed as a feast day, and coincided with the harvest season, September in the Northern Hemisphere. Pronounced ‘Mikle-mas’, it was more of a religious day and seasonal marker by the time of the Regency era, although the degree to which one paid attention to the holiday depended on if you lived in the country or the city and if you were religiously inclined. Michaelmas was short for Michael’s Mass, after the archangel Michael, and is now known in the Catholic church as the Feast of Saints.
Falling on 29th September each year, Michaelmas coincides with the beginning of autumn, and was a signal of shorter days to come. The harvest was timed to finish on Michealmas and this was a way of marking the seasonal cycle of summer/fall.
There were many popular customs associated with Michaelmas, and in Regency England it was the custom to eat goose on that day, which was supposed to protect against poverty in the coming year.
‘He who eats goose on Michaelmas day;
Shan’t money lack or debts pay’
Jane Austen herself wrote to her sister Cassandra at Michaelmas 1813: I dined upon Goose yesterday, which I hope will secure a good Sale of my 2nd Edition.’
As an autumnal feast, foods eaten would have strongly represented the harvest, and reds and orange foods like carrots and pumpkins, but as I said above, goose was also a traditional meat. Michaelmas is said to be a day where the archangel Michael battles Lucifer the Devil after his fall from heaven. Part of the legend is that when Lucifer fell from heaven, he landed in a blackberry bush and spit on the berries to curse them and make them sour. So blackberries are also eaten on this day. Another traditional food eaten was called St Michael’s Bannock, a type of bread cooked in a pan.
For pure fun, here is a recipe, if you are so inclined, for St Michael's Bannock.
St. Michael’s Bannock
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
On a floured surface, knead the dough until smooth, then pat into an 8 inch round loaf, and bake on a greased cookie sheet for 40 minutes.
For a more festive look, score the dough with crosses.
Cool on a cookie rack.