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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

What is Michaelmas?

Updated: Apr 20




This year’s blog postings will cover Tudor holidays. For 2022-2023, we’ll do a deep dive into Tudor holiday customs, foods, and social gatherings. As a recovering academic, I am hoping to entertain and inform readers with an exploration into some of what might be lost in the wife searches, dissolutions, and Armadas.

So why did I start in September? Wellwe all get that “back to school” feeling in September. We are ready for more information and to connect with others.

So here we go…

Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 9v-10


Are you ready for your Michaelmas reboot? Also, what is Michaelmas?


While New Year’s Day gets all the life-changing resolutions and, according to Glamour magazine, we should spring clean on the equinox, the Tudors had another idea. They observed Michaelmas.


Today’s blog will walk us through the old Michaelmas traditions, the kinds of traditions Henry VIII, his wives and his children would have recognized.

Then, we’ll update them and see how a modern person might enjoy a Michaelmas reboot of their lives.


Michaelmas falls on the 29th of September. It was the festival in honor of St. Michael the Archangel who commanded the heavenly armies. And yes, though Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1536 included the elimination of the cult of the saints, saint’s days still functioned as markers on the administrative calendar.


In Tudor England, winter and summer, planting and harvest, Christmas and Easter, Lady Day (25 March—more on that later!) and Michaelmas, were the pivots of the year. Easter and Michaelmas were especially important for the finances of the Tudor household. Those were the two days servants were paid their half year’s salary.


Oh, Michaelmas, you think. Of course! Time to eat a goose fattened on the stubble of the harvest. Also time to avoid blackberries—because the Devil spits on all the blackberries Michaelmas Eve.


But what else should you do on the 29th of September?


Michaelmas marks the beginning of the fall which, in the Tudor household, ended at Christmas and the yuletide celebrations. Fall is a magnificent season, full of possibilities and new beginnings that New Year’s Day, with its raging snows and biting cold fails to deliver.


As early as 1900, in their book Observations on Popular Antiquities Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, John Brand, Henry Ellis believed that Michaelmas marks a festival day of joy, plenty and benevolence.

How can we turn the ceremonies and superstitions into something useful today? What new possibilities could the old rituals hold for us?


Let’s look at 3: your love life, your budget, and your play.


Take an inventory of romantic life

One of the Michaelmas traditions Brand and Ellis describe is crab apple gathering. Picking crab apples is not the end in itself. The purpose of gathering the apples is to bring them home and toss them into a lofted space. Having tossed your apples into the loft, a married lady in the village climbed up to see what shape they made that most resembled letters in the alphabet. It was up to her to interpret what letters she saw. Let’s say you tossed your crab apples and they most resembled the shape of an L and an S. The lucky squire with the corresponding initial made your short list for the perfect mate.


Perhaps today we could ask ourselves, if my crab apples fell in the shape of my partner’s initials, would I be happy? Or would I wish for another?


Michaelmas Daisy are actually asters. Its name comes from the Greek term for star, referring to the shape of its flowers. Asters traditionally symbolize all that we would want for the start of the fall—faith and hope for all that is to come. In his poem A Late Walk, by Robert Frost, the aster flower is regarded as a symbol of hope, as it’s seen as the last sign of life in an autumn field among withered weeds and dried leaves.


Tudors knew that the Greeks would leave asters as love offerings on the altars of the gods. According to the British Library, George Etheridge, the Tudor antiquarian, talk about how the elite studied both Greek and Latin. Henry VIII and all his children knew that the Greek goddess Astria looked up to the sky and could not see any stars. She was overcome with sadness that she started to weep, and her tears fell to the ground. From these tears, the star-shaped flowers that we know as asters grew.


In good Tudor fashion, buy yourself some Michaelmas daisies for remembrance of love (especially if your crab apples spelled out initials that you did not like!) and prosperity.

This leads us to another Michaelmas tradition….


Make a budget


From the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century, Michaelmas and Easter were paydays. If you were a household servant, a government clerk, or a landlord, it was the day to collect your


While today we are likely paid more often, that does not mean we can be a borrower or a lender. Henry VII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I were excellent budgeters.

What should a Michaelmas budget look like? This example from the British Library



The household accounts of King Henry VII: Add MS 7099, f. 2r


Ugh. I know. But to live the Tudor life, we need a written budget. Our budget, like this one, is categorized by date, type of expense, and exact amount. That is how we avoid being a borrower or a lender! (Thanks, Polonius.)

A Tudor good at budgeting like Elizabeth I or Henry VII, knew to make a budget work we need:

  • A “needs” fund –basically an emergency fund

  • A plan to pay down debt.

  • A generous spirit to give to those displaced by the dissolution of the monasteries—or any other charity of your choice.

Once we have our love lives sorted and our money allocated we can finally…


Play


As Brand and Ellis tell us in Observations on Popular Antiquities Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, Michaelmas day was a day of celebration, time spent with friends, and eating.


Therefore, if you are struggling with love and money, when all else fails, eat a Michaelmas cake.


You can find a wonderful recipe here:


Part of the celebration of Michaelmas was making cakes to share. Everyone who came to the house, whether friend or stranger, had a piece. There was sympathetic magic in the cake. Eating it, so it was believed, brought not only delicious calories, but a link to the warrior saint for which the cake was named.


I was inspired to begin my research on Michaelmas as I worked on my Anne of Cleves mystery series. Please sign up for my newsletter and blog to find out more about Tudor holidays this year!



 

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