Michaelmas, by Milica of Varna

St. Michael the Archangel: Feast-day, September 29. Patron saint of Brussels, the sick and battle, invoked when tempted, or when storm-tossed at sea.

In England, it is traditional to hear the fall season referred to as "Michaelmas." Named for the feast day of St. Michael, it is a time of harvest and celebration in much of Europe. Many of the traditions of the harvest fairs of modern day have their basis in medieval times.

In September, Michaelmas fairs were and are a gathering point for farmers and merchants. A large glove, suspended above the fair, is the symbol that the town has the sanction of the mayor, local nobleman or king to hold the fair, such as one given by King John to the town of Sturbridge in 1211. The glove symbolizes the handshake of promises and openhandedness and generosity.

Food at Michaelmas also features long traditions. Goose is the special treat and is served roasted, but decorated with feathers to make the bird look alive. The goose is brought to the table with great ceremony on a platter that has been elaborately decorated fruit and flowers. The neck is reserved for the most honored guest. Often, marzipan or subtleties are substituted for a real goose so that everyone may have a taste and be lucky for the year.

Another tradition of Michaelmas is the use of ginger. All manner of foods seasoned with ginger are part of the day's menu from gingerbread to ginger beer. The tradition may indeed have its roots in the Middle Ages, since it is said that a wealthy merchant once brought a shipload of the rare spice to sell at the Michaelmas market. When a high tax was levied on his cargo, he refused to pay, choosing instead to pass the ginger out to any who wanted some. Of course, everyone did and ginger has been used ever since. It is also possible, that ginger is the flavor of Michaelmas because St. Michael is the patron saint of healers and ginger is said to be a good antidote for stomach and chest illnesses.

This year when celebrating the abundance of the September harvest under the Michaelmas Moon, plan to share the "Three G's" with friends and family: Glove, Goose and Ginger and eat hardy at the fair!

Source: Madeleine Pelner Cosman. Medieval Holidays and Festivals: a Calendar of Celebrations. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, ¸ 1981.

Copyright © 1996 by Katherine Courtney. All Rights Reserved.