Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Customs of Michaelmas

Continuing on with the theme of customs and traditions, today is the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, known as Michaelmas.

The website Catholic Culture offers many good summaries of some of the customs and traditions associated with the liturgical year, and so this can be a good resource for parents, couples and individuals alike -- even parishes who wish to organize parish events.

Here is what they have to offer today:

September 29: Michaelmas Day


To many, Saint Michael the Archangel, "Captain of the Heavenly Host," is best known as that dauntless spirit who vanquished his peer among the angels, Lucifer, once called "the Star of the Morning." Michael is a star of the love than conquers pride. Sometimes he is pictured as a winged angel in white robes, but oftener as the armed warrior on the errands of God, about his head a halo and under his foot the demon, prone and helpless. He was honored in Jewish tradition, and became the champion of Christian warriors as well, although in early ages he was also given the protection of the sick. Of his early sanctuaries, the best known is Monte Gargano in Italy, where he appeared in the fifth or sixth century to the Lombards and insured their victory over the Greek Neapolitans. In the Middle Ages Michael became in Normandy the patron of mariners. His shrines were built in high places, facing the sea, and Mont-Saint-Michel on its rock is the greatest example of devotion to him, a place of pilgrimage a thousand years ago as it still is today. In the early days much food was sold around the shrine "bread and pasties, fruit and fish, birds, cakes, venizens," according to an old description. The fare is simpler today but a visitor to Mont-Saint-Michel will eat a famed and favorite dish:

Mère Poulard’s Omelet
1/4 lb. butter, 8 eggs

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan (traditionally never used for any other purpose and never washed, merely being rubbed clean with salt after use) until it begins to froth and becomes a light golden brown. Beat the eggs with a fork slightly, just enough to mix the yolks and whites. Do not overbeat! Pour the eggs into the pan and cook gently, bringing the edges of the omelet as it cooks to the center of the pan, lifting the mass slightly so that the uncooked portion can run underneath. Increase the heat for about one minute, moving the pan about so that the omelet will slide in the pan. Invert on a platter and, when half is out of the pan, flip the pan quickly so as to cover with the remaining half. Do not salt as the quantity of butter used is sufficient to season the omelet properly. It is an old wives' tale that this omelet can only be properly prepared over a wood fire!

England long observed Michaelmas with many special ceremonies and customs. The Michaelmas daisy was named in the saint’s honor, and village maidens in other days gathered crab apples on his feast. These were carried home and put into a loft, so arranged as to form the initials of their supposed lovers. The initials that were still perfect on old Michaelmas Day (October 11) were supposed to show where true love was. Another curious belief was that it was unlucky to gather blackberries on the feast of Saint Michael. The outstanding and most persistent custom connected with Michaelmas was the eating of a goose at dinner. This seems to have originated with the practice of presenting a goose to the landlord when paying the rent. According to a sixteenth-century poet:

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.

We read that Queen Elizabeth was eating her Michaelmas goose when she received the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Obviously, this is apocryphal, for the "invincible" Armada was defeated in July and the news reached Elizabeth long before Michaelmas. But certainly the custom persisted in high places and low throughout Britain. The Michaelmas goose was eaten in other places besides the British Isles, although in most countries of the Continent this custom was more apt to be connected with the celebration of Saint Martin’s Day (November 11th). The Germans believed they could foretell the weather from the breastbones of the Michaelmas goose — a belief that traveled to America with immigrants of German stock, and which still exists today among the Pennsylvania Dutch.

To Roast a Goose

Potato and Sausage Stuffing

6 cups cubed potatoes
3 tablespoons chopped onion
3 tablespoons butter
3/4 lb. sausage meat
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon marjoram
salt and pepper

Peel and cube the potatoes and parboil for about five minutes. Sauté the onion in the butter and add the potatoes, sausage meat, and parsley. Season with marjoram and pepper, and salt lightly because of the sausage meat. Apples may be substituted for the potatoes but in that case omit the marjoram.

Chestnut Dressing

6 cups chestnuts
1/2 lb. melted butter
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt and pepper
1 cup chopped celery
2 cups bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated onion

Shell, skin, and boil the chestnuts in salted water until tender. Mix with the remaining ingredients and, if the stuffing appears to be too dry, moisten with 1/2 cup heavy cream.

In Ireland, Michaelmas was one of the most important feasts of the year, and people prayed especially on this day for protection against sickness. A goose or a sheep or a pig was especially killed and eaten at Michaelmas at a feast of thanksgiving, connected by some with a miracle of Saint Patrick performed with the aid of Michael the Archangel. And the Irish made a Michaelmas Pie into which a ring was placed — its finder was supposed to have an early marriage. In Scotland, Saint Michael’s Bannock was made on his day, as well as a Saint Michael’s Cake, that all guests, together with the family, must eat entirely before the night was over.

In Scotland, Saint Michael’s Bannock was made on his day, as well as a Saint Michael’s Cake, that all guests, together with the family, must eat entirely before the night was over.

Activity Source: Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, David McKay Company, Inc., New York, 1951

Source: Catholic Culture : Liturgical Year : September 29: Michaelmas Day (Activity)

Another good source for knowledge of the various customs and traditions surrounding our feast days is Fr. Francis X. Weiser, the author of The Holyday Book and The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs.

For this day, Fr. Weiser notes the tradition of St. Michael's wine, a custom which apparently persists in Denmark in particular.

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