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Michaelmas Day

Michaelmas Day

“He who eats goose on Michaelmas day;
Shan’t money lack or debts pay.”

The feast of St. Michael and All Angels otherwise known as Michaelmas Day arrives on the 29th of September. This is one of the four Quarter Days of the yearly calendar that marked the changing seasons and as it falls close to the Autumn Equinox (September 23rd 2015) heralds the coming of Autumn. It was also one of the four Quarter Days when rents and tithes were due for payment and farm tenancies changed hands. Traditionally this day also marked the end of the harvest season which in theory meant all the crops were safely gathered in. This meant it was a convenient time for some agricultural labourers and maids  to look for new employment and equally so farmers to engage new workers. The hiring took place at a local fair where those seeking new employment would carry tools or symbols of their trade to let prospective employers know they were for hire. These hiring fairs were known as Goose Fairs or Mop Fairs many of which, although now simply fun fairs, carry on the tradition today. One example of such an early Dartmoor fair was that held beneath Brentor Church. As the church was dedicated to St. Michael it was very apt to hold the fair on his feast day beneath his church. It is documented that in 1231 Abbot John of Rochester paid five marks for an annual three day Michaelmas fair to be held on the vigil, feast and morrow of the Archangel at Brentor. This fair continued into the mid 1500s until it was moved to Tavistock.
Another strong connection with Michaelmas Day was geese insomuch as it was deemed lucky to eat goose on this day. In 1813 Jane Austen wrote; “I dined upon goose yesterday which I hope will secure a good sale of the second edition of my book.” Some say that this tradition began with Queen Elizabeth I because she was dining on goose when news of the Spanish Armada’s defeat was brought to her. From that day onwards she would always eat goose on Michaelmas Day to mark the occasion. This practice then spread amongst her subjects and became a common practice. However, there is the thought that the tradition eating goose on Michaelmas Day began much earlier than Elizabethan times simply because that day was a feast day and at this time geese were in ample supply.

The goose tradition can to this day be seen celebrated at Tavistock’s  famous Goosey Fair where at one time geese were sold, eaten and even rents to the abbey paid in the form of geese. An old verse from 1575 written by George Gascoine regarding paying rents in the form of geese went:

And when the tenauntes come
to paie their quarter’s rent,
They bring some fowle at Midsummer,
a dish of fish in Lent,
At Chritsmasse a capon,
at Michaelmasse a goose;
And somewhat else at New-yeres tide,
for feare their lease flie loose.”
Geese now in prime season are,
Which, if well roasted, are good fare;
Yet however, friends, take heed,
How too much on them you feed,
Lest, as you tongues run loose,
Your discourse do smell of goose.”

Although not actually on Dartmoor another superstition was that on Michaelmas Day should any geese be in the vicinity of St. Michael’s shrine then they would bleed profusely.

The eve of Michaelmas Day was when the winter curfew came into force. Each evening the night curfew would be heralded by the ringing of the curfew bell, one toll for each of the months that had past. This practice was to ensure that all villagers and townsfolk doused their household fires in order to prevent any of them catching alight during the night. The curfew bell was rung on every day except Sundays from Michaelmas until Shove Tuesday.
Being such a notable day a couple of sayings came to be regarding future weather forecasting; “If St Michael brings many acorns, Christmas will cover the fields with snow.”, and “A dark Michaelmas, a light Christmas.” One strange custom that was sometimes practice was to take an oak apple on Michaelmas Day and cut it in two. If a fly or maggot emerged then that predicted a lucky year ahead, if a spider crawled out then it was to be an unlucky year. Should nothing appear then a death would occur during the following months.
Whilst talking about superstitions there is the universal belief that after Michaelmas Day one should never pick brimbles, better know as blackberries. The thinking behind this was that when God cast the Devil out of heaven he fell to earth and landed on a blackberry bush. Depending on who you belief he either cursed the bush, peed on it, or spat at it, either way at best they tasted foul at worst they would bring you bad luck.
There is a flower associated with Michaelmas and that is the Michaelmas Daisy also known as the Aster. This plant is one of the last of the year to flower and because of this has been associated with Michaelmas Day.

The Michaelmas Daises, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St. Michael’s valourous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude (28th October).”

The tradition foretelling of a relationship by picking petals one at a time whilst saying alternatively “She/he loves me, she/he loves me not.”, has been applied to the Michaelmas Daisy.

Following the calendar reform of 1752 Michaelmas Day was moved forward to the 10th of October and became known as ‘Old Michaelmas Day’. In doing so some of the associated traditions moved with it. One such example being Tavistock’s Goosey Fair which now takes place on every second Wednesday in October.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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