Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Michaelmas Day and its Customs

A 14th-century Russian Icon of St Michael
The following article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of The Latin Mass 27:3 magazine (pp. 42-46); many thanks to the editors for allowing its publication here.

Feast days are typically assigned on or near the date that a Saint passes from this world to the next, but what happens with a heavenly spirit? For the feast of Saint Gabriel on March 24, it was the Archangel’s role in asking the Blessed Virgin to become the Mother of God that inspired the Church to honor him on the day before the feast of the Annunciation. For Saint Raphael, it may have been the relative proximity of the feasts of St. Michael (September 29) and the Guardian Angels (October 2) that led to his feast falling on October 24--though truth be told, the reason why that date was chosen remains something of a mystery.

For Saint Michael’s primary feast on September 29, the answer lies in a different logic. But before we discover what it is, let us learn more about the humble angelic prince whose name means “Who is like God?”
Prince of the Heavenly Hosts
Along with Gabriel and Raphael, Michael is one of only three Angels mentioned by name in the canonical Scriptures, and the only one explicitly called an Archangel (see Jude 1, 9). [1] In Greek, archangelos can mean “chief Angel” as well as “Archangel,” the second lowest of the nine angelic choirs. Opinions have therefore varied as to Michael’s exact rank and essence. The Church Fathers saw him as head of all heavenly spirits. Several, drawing from Jewish apocrypha, thought he was the cherub who guarded Eden “to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3, 24); they referred to him as the Praepositus Paradisi or Overseer of Paradise. [2] Centuries later Saint Bonaventure would go even further and posit that Michael is the chief among the Seraphim, the highest angelic order. Saint Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, places him among the Archangels, the order directly above the Angels but below the Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, and Principalities. [3]
Perhaps the resolution to these diverging accounts is that Michael was an Archangel promoted by God from the lower ranks to defeat Lucifer, who is believed to have been one of the Cherubim. [4] If so, Lucifer’s defeat at his hand would have constituted a special humiliation for the arrogant upstart; it would be like a haughty colonel getting routed by a staff sergeant who was suddenly made, as the Byzantine tradition calls Michael, Archistrategos or “Highest General.” Just as the Blessed Virgin Mary is Queen of the Angels by grace but not by nature (as a human being, she is inferior to the spirits above), so too may Michael be “Prince of the Heavenly Hosts” by a divinely-appointed elevation above his natural status.
St Michael Defeats the Devil, by Guido Reni, 1630-35 ca.; from the church of St Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Rome. (Public domain image from Wikimedia.)
Michael in Scripture and Tradition
Michael appears explicitly only five times in the Bible, three in the Old Testament and two in the New.
The Book of Daniel mentions him by name thrice. In Daniel 10, 13, we read, “The prince of the kingdom of the Persians resisted me one and twenty days: and behold Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me.” The princes in question are ostensibly guardian Archangels of nations; the “prince” of the Persians is the guardian Archangel of Persia who, seeking the spiritual good of the people entrusted to him, resists the effort to remove the Jews from Persia. Michael, however, sides with the Jews, for in Daniel 10, 21, he is called “your prince,” that is, prince of the prophet Daniel and by extension the people of Israel.
Similarly, in the third and final Old Testament reference to Michael, when an angel speaks of the end of the world, he declares, “At that time shall Michael rise up, the great prince, who standeth for the children of Thy people” (Daniel 12,1). The “children of God’s people” are again a reference to ancient Israel, but they also signify the Church, the new Israel, guarded by Michael in these last times. Based on this protection, there is even a tradition that he is the guardian angel of the Pope.
In the New Testament, one of the most curious references to Michael inside the Bible or out is found in Jude 1, 9.
When Michael the Archangel, disputing with the devil, contended about the body of Moses, he durst not bring against him the judgment of railing speech, but said: “The Lord command thee.”
Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, Archangel Michael and Satan Disputing about the Body of Moses (ca. 1782)
According to early Christians like Gelasius of Cyzicus and Origen, Saint Jude is alluding to a Jewish tradition found in the apocryphal text The Assumption of Moses in which Satan wished to make known the tomb of Moses in order to seduce the Hebrews into idolatrous hero-worship, while Michael fought successfully to keep its location hidden.
Finally, in the Book of Revelation we read:
And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels: And they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world; and he was cast unto the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him (12, 7-9).
Saint John speaks here of the end of time, but because his apocalyptic visions also describe events from earlier in sacred history (such as the Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth to the Son of God in Apocalypse 12, 1), the passage about Michael and the dragon is also seen as describing a battle that occurred at the beginning of time--or rather, before time even began. Thus, the deed for which Michael is most famous, casting the Devil out of Heaven, is only hinted at indirectly in Sacred Scripture.
The Church Fathers inferred Michael’s presence in other biblical passages as well. For some, as we have already noted, he was a cherub keeping man out of Eden with a flaming sword (Genesis 3, 24). For others, he was the angel through whom God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses, the angel who blocked Balaam (Numbers 22, 22ff.), and the angel who routed the army of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19, 35).
The sacred liturgy mentions additional accomplishments. In the traditional Roman rite, the incense prayer Per intercessionem identifies Michael as the angel who stands near the altar of the temple with a golden censer (Apocalypse 8,3). [5] And the Epistle reading for his Mass (Apocalypse , 1-5) suggests that hel is the angel who gave Saint John his vision of the Last Days. The Magnificat antiphon for First Vespers of the feast even includes a direct quote from Michael not found in the Bible, in which he pleads for forgiveness on behalf of God’s people to the Lamb of God who was found worthy of opening the book and loosening its seals (Apocalypse 5, 5-8). The importance of Michael in the Roman Rite is also attested in the Confiteor, which places him behind the Blessed Virgin and ahead of John the Baptist.
Finally, the usus antiquior invokes Michael as a protector of the Elect not only on earth but in Purgatory. In the third antiphon for Lauds and Vespers on Saint Michael’s Day, the Church sings words that are ascribed to God: “O Archangel Michael, I have appointed thee prince over all souls to be received into eternity.” And in the Offertory Verse at every Requiem Mass, the Church prays that “Michael the standard-bearer may put them [the souls of the faithful departed] into the presence of the holy light which Thou once promised to Abraham and his seed.” He also has the office of Seelenwäger or “Weigher of Souls” and can be found in artistic portrayals of the Last Judgment holding a pair of scales containing the deceased. Consequently, cemetery chapels in Europe were routinely dedicated to him, and Masses offered there once a week in his honor and for the souls in Purgatory. [6]
Master of Messkirch (1500–1543), Der Erzengel Michael als Seelenwäger
Michael’s conducting of the dead may even have extended to the Blessed Virgin. In one version of an early Christian genre of literature known as “The Passage of Mary,” Our Lord gives the soul of His deceased mother to Saint Michael for safekeeping and her body to Saint Peter for entombment. Later, our Lord commands him to return with Mary’s soul and remove the stone from the entrance to her tomb. When Michael does so, Jesus reunites His mother’s body and soul moments before she is assumed into Heaven. [7]
Patron of the Sick
In the Jewish apocryphal text The Apocalypse of Moses, Michael denies a request from Eve and Seth for some oil from the Tree of Life, but promises to distribute the healing ointment at the end of time. It is perhaps this colorful legend that inspired the early Church to look to him as a patron of the sick.
His cult began in the Near East, where medicinal springs dedicated to him at Chairotopa near Colossae (present-day Khonas, Turkey) were said to cure all who bathed there while invoking the Blessed Trinity and Michael. There were also miraculous springs in Colossae itself. According to a Greek tradition, which is immortalized in a Byzantine feast on September 6, pagans redirected a stream against a sanctuary dedicated to him, but the Archangel split a rock with lightning to change the stream’s course and forever sanctify it.
Michael and water were often intertwined in early Christian imagination; hot springs, for example, were dedicated to Michael throughout Asia Minor. In Constantinople, a famous dedicated church to him was built at the thermal baths of the Emperor Arcadius; the Byzantine rite’s principle feast to Michael was celebrated there on November 8. Egyptian Christians, in turn, adapted this feast vis-à-vis their most important river. On June 12, “they keep as a holiday of obligation the feast of Michael ‘for the rising of the Nile.’ ” [8]
Rome also honored Michael as a healer, though without the aquatic element. After leading a procession through the city to stop a plague, Pope Saint Gregory the Great saw him atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian sheathing his sword as a sign that the pestilence was over. The grateful Romans renamed Hadrian’s tomb Castel Sant’Angelo, and to this day a bronze statue of the Archangel adorns its summit.
Statue of Michael the Archangel atop Castel Sant’ Angelo (also named after the angel) by Peter Anton von Verschaffelt
Patron of Defenders
Michael’s violent expulsion of Satan and his manly defense of the Church (if an angel can be called manly) also made him an ideal candidate for a different kind of patronage: protecting Christian soldiers from pagan or heretical armies.
On May 8, 663, the Lombards of Siponto were attacked by Greek Neapolitans, who at the time were monothelite heretics. Mindful of the sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo nearby, the Lombards invoked Michael and carried the day. In the traditional calendar, the feast of the Apparition of Saint Michael honors his appearance in A.D. 492 on Monte Gargano (when he commissioned Monte Sant’Angelo to be built), but the date of May 8 was chosen not because it is the anniversary of the apparition but because it is the anniversary of the battle.
In 933 and 955, imperial troops in Bavaria invoked his intercession through prayer, song, and battle cry when they successfully repelled the invading Magyar heathen. [9] He was made patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire and later of Germany.
It was Michael who informed Saint Joan of Arc of her divine mission and guided her in her military victories over the English during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
In the East, Michael is said to have saved the city of Constantinople twice (in 626 and in 674-678), while Grand Duke Dmitry Ivanovich Donskoy (a saint in Eastern Orthodox churches) defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380 with the help of an icon of him. [10]
Michael was also the patron saint of several knightly orders such as the French Ordre de Saint-Michel (1469) and a Bavarian order by the same name (1693). England retained him as a patron even after the Reformation, instituting in 1818 the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George for leaders in the Mediterranean territories acquired by the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars.
He is a patron of sailors and invoked against dangers at sea because of an ancient devotion at the famous Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of Normandy, France. In modern times, he is the patron saint of fencing, battle, paratroopers, police, security forces, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. armed forces. One of the reasons that “Michael” was, with the exception of 1960, the most popular boys’ name in the United States from 1954 to 1998 was because the warrior Archangel who defeated Satan and his minions had been invoked to protect our troops against the wicked legions of Hitler and Tojo during World War II. The returning GIs remembered Michael’s patronage and gratefully named their sons after him.
Other Patronages
Modern devotion has kept the Archangel busy in other ways, too. In addition to England and Germany, he is a patron saint of France, Papua New Guinea, American Samoa, the Basque people (who observe Michaelmas with great festivity), and over a dozen cities and municipalities. One of those is Arkhangelsk in northwest Russia, named after him. According to legend, Michael slayed the Devil nearby and continues to watch over the city to prevent his return.
The Coat of Arms of the city of Arkhangelsk, Russia
Because he is a healer and coachman of souls, he is invoked by those who transport the sick such as EMTs, paramedics, and ambulance drivers. In 1941, the Holy See made him patron of radiologists and radiotherapists, explaining that radium treatments pose dangers to the health care workers who administer them. In 1957, Pope Pius XII named Michael the heavenly patron of bankers, perhaps because they are in danger of being attacked by robbers. And it may be for this reason that grocers turn to him as well. But why he is the patron saint of haberdashers and hat-makers is far from clear. Could it be because he is the “head” angel? [11] Catholic folk piety is not always based on sophisticated etiology.
Finally, the Archangel’s role in the End Times received renewed attention after Pope Leo XIII had a terrifying vision of the Church being subjected to demonic assault for a hundred years. The Pope subsequently composed a prayer to Saint Michael and included it in the “Leonine Prayers” recited after every Low Mass from 1886 until 1962. [12]
Michaelmas Day
As for the primary feast of Michael in the Roman Rite: in A.D. 530, Pope Boniface II consecrated a basilica in his honor on the Salarian Way about seven miles from Rome, with the ceremonies beginning on the evening of September 29 and ending the following day. Subsequent celebrations of this dedication were held first on September 30, and later on September 29. In the 1962 Roman Missal, the feast maintains the title “The Dedication of Saint Michael the Archangel,” even though the basilica it commemorates disappeared over a thousand years ago. For most English-speaking Christians, however, the feast was known as “Michaelmas” (MICK-əl-məs), an abbreviation of “Michael’s Mass.”
From the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century, Michaelmas was a holy day of obligation and a much-anticipated feast. Parades, fairs, and plays in honor of Michael were common. Michaelmas became a convergence of the sacred, the astronomical, and the practical. Its proximity to the fall equinox made it a magnet for autumnal and harvest observances. Among these were “quarter days,” one of the four times of the year when freemen in England, Ireland, Wales, and Germanic nations assembled to draw up laws, settle their financial accounts, make land deals, and hire servants. To this day the more traditional universities in the U.K. and Ireland call their Fall semester “Michaelmas term,” and courts in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland call the first of their four annual seasons by that name as well.
Besides “Michaelmas,” the feast of Saint Michael had at least two other nicknames. One was “Goose Day” because of a custom of feasting on geese and holding “goose fairs” in which farmers brought their geese to market. A Michaelmas goose was an appropriate way to celebrate the end of the harvest in Ireland and England, especially when the bird in question was a “stubble-goose,” an adult goose that had grown plump on the stubble of autumn wheat fields. A large winged creature makes a fitting tribute to an angel, and a nice fat goose auspiciously evokes the financial hopes of the quarter days. Hence the old superstition:
Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day,
Want not for money all the year.
Michaelmas geese were popular in Ireland and England and have recently experienced a minor comeback in Great Britain, [13] but in Scotland the treat of the day was St Michael’s Bannock or Struan Micheil. This large scone-like cake is traditionally “made from cereals grown on the family’s land during the year, representing the fruits of the fields, and is cooked on a lamb skin, representing the fruit of the flocks.” When the eldest daughter of the family made the Bannock, she prayed, “Progeny and prosperity of family, Mystery of Michael, Protection of the Trinity.” [14]
Michaelmas was also known as “Devil’s Spit Day.” When Lucifer was cast out of Heaven, he is said to have fallen on a blackberry bush and angrily spat on it. Consequently, one can eat blackberries on but not after either Michaelmas Day (September 29) or Old Michaelmas Day (October 4 or 11 in those parts of England that unofficially held on to the Julian calendar).
Of course, Michaelmas revelers need something to wash down all that food. Michelsminne or “Michael’s Love” was the name given in parts of northern Europe to any wine consumed on Michaelmas. The custom was especially popular in Denmark.
Finally, there is an old English custom of giving someone a Michaelmas Daisy (an aster) as a way of saying farewell. As Ben Johnson speculates, associating Michaelmas Daisies with goodbyes is perhaps an echo of saying farewell to a productive year. [15] Michaelmas Daisies are so named because they are one of the few flowers that bloom around this time of year. Hence the old poem:
The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude [October 28].
Michaelmas in Modernity
Although Michaelmas has always been formally dedicated to Michael alone, the feast implicitly celebrates all angels, as the propers for the Mass and Divine Office attest. In 1670, Pope Clement X added the feast of the Guardian Angels to the universal calendar on October 2, the first available day after Michaelmas. And in 1921, Pope Benedict XV added separate feasts celebrating the “divine mission” of the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael in order to “increase piety” and because of their relation to the Holy Family: Gabriel announced the Incarnation, which began the Holy Family, and Raphael blessed all families when he blessed the family of Tobias. [16]
In the 1969 new Roman Missal, September 29 is the combined “feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels.” No official reason was given for what Peter Kwasniewski calls this “almost rabid smushing together” [17] of feasts, but it may have had something to do with the antiquarian tendencies of Archbishop Bugnini and his colleagues, who disdained relatively recent additions to the calendar.
Whatever the rationale, together with the 1962 demotion of the Leonine Prayers to optional status, the exclusion of Michael from the revised Confiteor and the prayers of the new Mass of Christian Burial, and the deletion of the incensation prayer mentioning him, this “smushing” has taken some liturgical luster off Michael’s cult. Lord knows when the end of the world will come, but it does seem odd that the Church should lessen her devotion to the Archangel of the Apocalypse as the Apocalypse draws nigh. Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle.

[1] In the Book of Tobias/Tobit, Raphael states that he is one of the seven Angels “who stand before the Lord” (12, 15). Filling in the blanks, Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Christians identify the other four Archangels as Uriel, Jegudiel or Jehudiel, Selaphiel or Salathiel, and Barachiel. The names of these angels, however, are taken from Jewish and Christian apocrypha and not from the Bible.
[2] See Transitus Mariae in The Elucidarium, ed. J. Morris Jones (Clarendon Press, 1894), 231.
[3] Summa Theologiae I.113.3.
[4] Tradition applies Ezekiel 28, 14—a verse originally referring to the King of Tyre—to Lucifer.
[5] See also the Offertory verse for Saint Michael’s Mass (September 29).
[6] See Francis X. Weiser, The Holyday Book (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1956), 190.
[7] Transitus Mariae, 234.
[8] Holweck, Frederick. “St. Michael the Archangel.” Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (Robert Appleton Company, 1911), 21 Jan. 2018 .
[9] See Weiser, 188.
[10] See “Heiliger Michael,”
[11] See Michael Walsh, Butler’s Lives of Patron Saints (Burns & Oates, 1987).
[12] See Kevin J. Symonds’ Pope Leo XIII and the Prayer to St. Michael (Preserving Christian Publications, 2015).
[13] Michelle Warwicker, “Are we ready to embrace the Michaelmas goose once again?” 29 September 2012, BBC Food,
[14] Ben Johnson, “Michaelmas,” Historic UK,
[15] Ibid.
[16] AAS 13 (1921), 543.
[17] Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico Press, 2017), 222.

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