Major Feasts In The Anglican Tradition
Major Feast days are not only important religious events marking our journey through the Christian year, they are also important social events in which the spiritual and secular worlds come together. Feast days remain vital parts of our culture that are part and parcel of our identity.
Advent marks the beginning of the Church’s new year and is celebrated in November on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and the Sunday before St Andrew’s Day. It is a time of preparation for Christmas in much the way Lent is for Easter. Advent traditions include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional, setting up Christmas decorations and the ‘hanging of the greens’ ceremony.
Advent services now also include the relatively modern tradition of ‘Christingle’ which is a service dedicated to and for children. It includes using an orange to represent the world, a candle to represent Christ as the light of the world, a red ribbon to represent the blood of Christ, aluminium foil to represent the nails used to crucify Him and dried fruits to represent the fruits of the earth. Christingle services are also held over the Christmas period and sometimes during Epiphany. Whilst ASA is generally wary of modern innovations within the Church, it considers Christingle to be a positive innovation, especially one that celebrates, and is a celebration for, our children.
St Lucy’s Day (21st December)
Saint Lucy was a 3rd century martyr who, according to legend, brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the catacombs during the persecutions of Diocletian. She used a candle-lit wreath to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Although now usually celebrated on the 13th December, her feast originally coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year before calendar reforms. As such, it is a festival of light and falling within the Advent season, it can be seen as heralding the arrival of Christmastide, pointing to the arrival of the Light of Christ on Christmas day.
The day includes processions of people holding candles to honour her work and to represent the power of light over the darkness and anticipating the coming of Christ as the light of the world.
These days, St Lucy’s day is mostly celebrated in Scandinavian countries and not well known in England. However, it was an important feast day in England right up to Puritan times, marking the start of the Yule season and the New Year. We therefore believe it should be restored to the English tradition.
Christmas Eve (24th December)
Christmas Eve is the day we anticipate Christmas day. It is usually marked by a fairly simple meal in the evening, carol singing and maybe by attending a Church service such as Midnight Mass. In England we do not exchange Christmas presents until Christmas day itself.
Christmas Day (25th December)
This is the day we celebrate the birth of God into our world. Church services are held, focusing on this theme and with plenty of Carols sung. It is a time for the nuclear family to be together and keep warm and open the presents!
Christmas is our Christianised version of the old Yule season. This was a time of peace and warmth when families got together. So we see the cultural side of Christmas, which goes way back into the mists of time, juxtaposed with the celebration of the birth of Christ. Both of these traditions are positive and complement each other well which is why Christmas is so popular. However, neither of them bears any resemblance to the modern commercialised Christmas which is just out to make money.
Boxing Day (26th December)
This is the traditional day for visiting the wider/extended family and is a sort of extension of Christmas day. The meaning of the word ‘boxing’ is shrouded in the mystery of time, but probably was when small parcels or boxes of money, treats and food were made available to poorer people. In later medieval times, it became more strongly associated with richer people giving such boxes to trades people or staff as a bonus for work well done over the year. Servants and other staff were allowed to visit their families (presumably with their box of goodies), hence the modern custom of visiting family.
Boxing day is also known for sports, especially horse racing, fox hunting and swimming in the freezing sea. In some areas, especially Cornwall, the day is also marked by Mummers plays, but this does not seem to have been a widespread custom in England generally.
Typical food can include leftovers from Christmas day and especially ham, such as boiled ham with potatoes and parsley sauce.
Today, Boxing day is especially associated with shopping and ‘sales’. This is part of our modern ‘consumer-led’ culture which we do not encourage or consider wholesome.
Holy Innocents (28th December)
This day marks the massacre of the holy innocents, young baby boys killed by King Herod in his attempts to kill the Christ child. He had asked the Wise Kings to report to him on the location of Christ when they found him, but they were warned by an Angel that Herod intended to kill Him and so they took a different route back to their homeland.
‘Herod’ was a title for a Jewish King appointed by the Romans to rule over the Judean people on civil matters. This particular Herod believed that Christ would grow up to take his place which is why he set out to kill him. When the Wise Kings declined to let him know where to find Christ, Herod decided to kill all male children under two years old to be sure. However, Joseph was forewarned of this and took the baby Jesus, together with his mother Mary, into Egypt where he remained until the death and instigation of a new Herod.
The story would have had particular poignancy with our Anglo Saxon ancestors as it is observed during the holy period of Yule in which violence was expressly forbidden.
Naming of Jesus and New Year’s Day (1st January)
This day commemorates the naming of Jesus when he was circumcised, according to Jewish custom. However, as an event it tends to get rather over shadowed by the secular festival of New Year’s Day.
Epiphany Eve or Wassailing Day (5th January)
This marks the eve of Epiphany and the visitation of the Three Wise Kings. At one time, Epiphany was more important than Christmas and whilst we don’t take it that far, we do think it should be given more prominence than it currently has. Celebrations on Epiphany eve include candle lit processions, wassailing (either around people’s homes or in honour of trees) and general merry making. The word ‘wassail’ is derived from the Anglo Saxon English words ‘Wes Thu Hal’, meaning ‘Good health to you’.
Epiphany or Three Kings Day (6th January)
This is a celebration of the visitation of the Three Wise Kings from the east, probably Persia, who followed a star in the sky to visit the child Jesus. These Wise Kings were Zoroastrian Magi (or Priestly nobles descended from Zoroaster himself). Zoroastrian priests had a reputation as experts in astrology and these Priests had seen signs in the stars that foretold the birth of God into our world. They brought with them gifts of Gold (representing wealth and kingship), Frankincense (representing His priestly status) and Myrrh (representing His anointment as the Christ and embalming oil foreshadowing His death on the Cross).
Baptism of Christ
This day celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. It was originally celebrated on Epiphany, but over time it became a distinct feast in its own right. It is usually celebrated in Anglican Churches on the first Sunday following Epiphany.
Distaff Day (7th January)
This is a celebration of women’s work, especially weaving, and marked the return of women to work in the evening after one final holiday celebration. It sometimes coincided with the men’s holiday of Plough Monday and on this time they would celebrate together and often play tricks on each other.
A distaff is a stone or rock that is used to hold unwoven fibres, usually flax or wool, and prevented them from tangling in the spinning process. As such, it became a symbol of women’s work in medieval Europe. ‘Distaff’ also became a common phrase to describe the female side of the family.
However, the significance of this feast goes back deeper into our mythology. The word ‘Dis’ itself comes from the Indo European word ‘dhēi’, meaning lady or goddesss, literally meaning to suckle. The Disir, or Idisi, were the Germanic and Saxon female goddesses, particularly those associated with battle. Frigg spins the web of Wyrd (fate) from her bejewelled distaff providing an association between the Disir, the Distaff and the Three Norns or Sisters of Wyrd. Early Saxon Christianity spent a great deal of time reconciling their new Christian faith with their older concepts of fate, which they called ‘Wyrd’.
This is held on the First Monday after Epiphany and marks the traditional start of the agricultural year in England and the resumption of work after the Christmas holiday. In many parts of the country in the Middle Ages, a decorated plough would be hauled around the villages collecting money – often with music. This procession would be accompanied by an old woman, or boy dressed as an old woman, called the ‘Bessy’ and with entertainment by a ‘fool’. A boiled suet pudding of sausage-meat and onions, called ‘Plough Pudding’ and originating from Norfolk, was eaten on this day.
An old tradition associated with Plough Monday, which is slowly being restored after having completely died out, is that of ‘Molly Dancing.’ Originally, it would have been undertaken by plough-hands in the idle season between the end of the Christmas period and the start of ploughing the fields in early spring. Men would go from house to house, especially of wealthier people, and offer to dance in return for a small sum of money. If they were refused, the home owner was likely to find a great plough furrow through his front lawn the next day! The men disguised themselves, sometimes by dressing up as women and sometimes by blackening their faces. My feeling though is that everyone knew what was expected of the ‘tradition’ and front lawns, in the main, remained un-ploughed!
Candlemas (2nd February)
Candlemas is a ‘Cross Quarter’ day that celebrates Christ as the ‘light of the world’ which according to John ‘shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it’. The Prophet Simeon the Righteous, declared the infant Jesus to be the light that would illumine the nations. This image of Christ as the light of the world has come to be celebrated in the west by the lighting of candles – hence the term Candlemas. It is a time for lighting candles and pondering Christ as ‘light of the world’.
This day also celebrates the ‘Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ or ‘Purification of the Virgin’ which was a ritual cleansing of a mother following birth. This tradition was followed in olden days and known as ‘Churching’.
However, Candlemas is also a Christianised continuation of an earlier folk tradition celebrating the beginnings of spring. The Anglo Saxons called this ‘Ewemeolc’ and the Britons and Celts Imbolc. Ewemeolc literally means ‘Ewe’s Milk’ and celebrated the start of the lambing season. Special feasts were held, candles and bonfires lit to mark the decline of winter and holy wells were visited.
And so there is a theme to this feast, which like many others, goes way back into our folk culture. This is a theme that winter is about to give way to spring and the darkness is, and always will be, overcome by the light.
Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)
This is a movable feast determined by the date for Easter. To ‘shrive’ comes from the Old English word Scrifan which means to confess. It is a time to consider our shortcomings and wrong doings and think about how we might overcome these in the following year. And it is a period of personal reflection that could continue through the Lent period.
But it’s also a time to eat pancakes!
Pancakes were eaten on this day to use up rich foodstuffs such as eggs, milk and butter. English pancakes are thin and typically eaten rolled-up with treacle, orange or lemon juice with sugar.
This follows Shrove Tuesday and so is also movable. It marks the first day of the fasting period of lent, symbolising the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes from palm branches of the previous year's Palm Sunday and using these to make the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads. This is accompanied by the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return".
Whilst this practice can be a useful outward sign of repentance, we believe that a period of inner reflection on our past actions and how we might address things we have fallen short of is more important. And so we also call Ash Wednesday ‘Reflection Wednesday.’ You do not need to attend a formal Church service for this. But where these are held, an appropriate period of quiet, with lights dimmed, should be held for us to reflect on these things.
Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day (25th March)
Lady day celebrates the annunciation that Mary was to become the Mother of God. It takes place exactly nine months from the birth of Christ on Christmas day. It is a Quarter day, though does not fall on the vernal equinox (March 21st) itself.
It used to be celebrated as New Years day in England until 1752, when it was replaced by January 1st following the move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. As it marked the end of the old year and beginning of the new, and because it did not fall either within or between the ploughing and harvesting seasons, it became the traditional day on which annual contracts were drawn up between landowners and tenant farmers. This sometimes meant farmers changing farms and so it was not unusual for people to be travelling from their old farm to the new one on this day.
Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday or The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem)
Called ‘Palm Sunday’ because of people placed Palms in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, this feast is also known as Passion Sunday because it marks the start of Holy Week and the Passion of Christ. It is customary on this day to be blessed by being sprinkled with holy water, followed by a solemn procession around the Church and then back into it through the main entrance to signify Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.
Holy Week marks the lead up to the death and resurrection of Christ. In some ways it is a strange celebration as we have already started to celebrate the return of the sun and warmth and now return to the death of God. But, on the other hand, it allows us a chance for focussed meditation on the whole ‘dying/rising’ God cycle of birth, death and rebirth as well on the specific events that led to the crucifixion prior to the celebration of Easter and the formal beginning of the ‘light’ season.
Holy Monday reflects on the temple Priests who questioned Jesus’ authority and his ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ by expelling the money changers.
Holy Tuesday foretells the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot during the ‘Last Supper’.
Holy Wednesday reflects on the anointing of Jesus with expensive oils and the plot by Judas to betray Him and to deliver Him to the Jewish authorities. A Chrism service may be celebrated on this day in which holy oils are blessed for treating the sick. A ‘Tenebrae’ service may also be held, which is a series of readings and responses as the candles in Church are gradually extinguished in preparation for the darkness of Christ’s death.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the last Supper of Christ and may be celebrated with a Eucharist service after which the Church bells are rung. The origin of the term ‘Maundy’ is probably derived from the Maundy baskets, or purses, of money that the king of England distributed to the poor on this day. This custom is still practiced by the monarch.
Good Friday is a movable feast determined by Easter. On this day we commemorate the passion and crucifixion of Christ. However, we do not celebrate a weak Christ, meekly succumbing to His death. We reflect the Crucifixion as told in the Anglo Saxon poem ‘Dream of the Rood’ which tells of a strong Christ meeting His fate head-on.
It is a day of fasting, although Hot Cross buns are eaten and traditionally the main meal of the day is fish. We would like to develop a series of readings that tell the story of the passion. These could be either read out in Church as part of a formal service (including Stations of Cross if desired by a particular congregation) or read out as part of family gatherings or meals or simply read quietly by an individual as a personal meditation.
Holy Saturday commemorates the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb and the ‘Harrowing of Hell’. There is no formal liturgy for the day, but readings can be said, or quietly read, commemorating the burial of Jesus. As a general rule, we do not observe the Easter Vigil. Instead, Churches should be closed and shrouded in darkness. Any personal or family shrines should also be covered and no candles burnt. The aim of this is to reflect the darkness of the closed tomb.
The Easter Vigil begins begins at sunset on Holy Saturday and lasts until sunrise on Easter Sunday. An Easter fire is kindled outside the Church and the Paschal candle is blessed and then lit. This Paschal candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary of the church or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all that Christ is "light and life".
Once the candle has been lit, it is carried by a deacon through the nave of the church, itself in complete darkness, stopping three times to chant the acclamation 'Light of Christ', to which the assembly responds 'Thanks be to God'. As the candle proceeds through the church, the small candles held by those present are gradually lit from the Paschal candle. As this symbolic "Light of Christ" spreads, darkness is decreased.
Easter Sunday marks the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of eternal life of all those who follow Him. It is the holiest day in the Christian calendar and is a truly joyous time as we celebrate Christ’s victory over death and his offer of eternal life to us all.
Bede tells us that our pre-Christian ancestors worshipped a goddess called Eostre from which the modern name is derived. Eostre was a goddess of the spring, fertility and renewal and Easter has always had a more general ‘folk’ element to it as we celebrate the start of spring and the re-awakening of the earth.
Although not common these days, hard boiled eggs are still decorated (usually on Holy Saturday) and exchanged on Easter Sunday. Rolling these eggs down steep slopes as a race remains popular in many parts of rural England. More common is the hunt for chocolate Easter eggs. Other foods of this period include ‘Simnel Cake’ and Easter biscuits. We are also very keen to encourage the resurgence of traditional Easter ‘Pace’ plays.
St George’s Day (23rd April)
George is the patron Saint of England as well as several other countries. However, not only was he not English, he only became our patron following the Norman conquest. Consequently, the English have always been a bit ambivalent about him! We certainly do not celebrate his feast as the Irish celebrate St Patrick’s.
This said, the old myth of George and the dragon has deep roots in our culture. It is reflected in the story of Beowulf and in Thor fighting giant sea monsters. So George does have roots in our culture and something to say to us that we should delve into more deeply.
We also observe this day as a celebration of England and Englishness. We know that English speaking people probably lived in these islands long before the times of Hengist and Horsa and even that Eastern England has always been part of a Germanic culture. And so we also see this day as ‘England Day’, a celebration of our folk, our culture and our homeland. The arrival of Hengist and Horsa is still important as a symbol of our beginnings and the White Horse Stone in Kent marks this.
May Day (1st May)
This marks the arrival of summer and a time when bonfires and candles are lit, special foods eaten and ‘May bushes’ decorated. It was also the custom until relatively recently to leave small amounts of food for the Elves and Spirits near such bushes. Holy wells may be visited and votive offerings left for general health and well-being and for a good summer.
In England we still have the procession of the May Queen, which may be a folk memory from mythology of the procession of the goddess Nerthus. Maypole dancing is also still practiced throughout the land.
This is a movable feast taking place on the Thursday, forty days after Easter, although it can be moved to the following Sunday. On this day we celebrate the ascension of Christ into heaven. Christ becomes again the ‘Cosmic Christ’ who reigns from heaven and is still with us.
In England, it was common to ‘beat the bounds’ on this day and some parishes continue this tradition.
Oak Apple Day - or Royal Oak Day (29th May)
This celebrates the restoration of the English Monarchy in 1660 with the accession of King Charles II, some eleven years after the execution of his father, Charles I, following the English Civil War. The day was an official public holiday in England until 1859, but is still celebrated in many quarters. Oak Apples are not real apples and are not edible. They are odd growths on oak trees that are often round in appearance, hence the name. The festival commemorates the occasion after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, when Charles II escaped the Roundhead army by hiding in an oak tree near Boscobel House. The day is still essentially one that celebrates not just the Monarchy, but the English attachment to it as a part of a system that maintains balance in Government, allows for individual freedoms and prevents tyranny such as Cromwell’s Commonwealth.
Traditional celebrations to commemorate the event included sporting an oak apple or sprigs of oak leaves on ones clothing and in some areas Church doors and lych gates were decorated with Oak beams. Smaller branches would also be placed near the door of everyone’s house as a sign of good luck for the coming year. Some areas also include Church processions and a blessing of the Church with an oak bough. Many of the decorations have a ‘celebration of nature’ feel to them and may have been incorporated into this essentially secular day to celebrate the repeal of laws banning such folk customs by the Puritans.
This feast is celebrated fifty days after Easter Sunday, hence its Greek name of Pentecost which is derived from their word for fifty. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire amongst the Apostles. The Apostles began to speak in tongues, so that every man who heard them could understand what they were saying, irrespective of what language he spoke. In Europe, Churches are often decorated with tree branches, usually birch. Sometimes, large cut outs of doves are also placed in churches to signify the Holy Spirit.
In parts of England, there are Whit walks with brass bands and with girls dressed in white. Morris dancing and cheese rolling are also still practiced. The origin of the term ‘whit’ is uncertain. Some believe it is a reference to the white clothes worn by people baptised in the period from Easter Sunday. Others think it is a reference to ‘whit’ or wisdom, to Holy Sophia which is the Greek word for Wisdom with which the holy spirit is often associated.
This is the first Sunday following Whitsun and celebrates God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God as Trinity is an important doctrine within Christianity and yet has never been clearly defined, perhaps reflecting the fact that the human mind can never fully understand the nature of God. Nevertheless, Trinity teaches us to see God as both active within our world and as transcendent of it. It also teaches us something of the active nature and inter-relationship of God, this active nature being underpinned by love.
Held on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday, this is a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. The service traditionally ends with a solemn procession of the blessed sacrament within a monstrance. As it was associated with the ‘real presence’ doctrine of Transubstantiation, this feast day is not generally celebrated in Protestant Churches. Indeed, it was officially banned in England in 1548. However, it has been revived in many Anglo Catholic and High Anglican Churches, though not always with the elaborate ritual of the Roman Rite. ASA does encourage the celebration of this feast day – but as a day of thanksgiving for the institution of Holy Communion as it is best known in the Anglican tradition rather than as an affirmation of any particular doctrine of the Eucharist.
St John the Baptist or Midsummer (24th June)
This marks the summer solstice which usually occurs around 21st June. However, the Church celebrates it on 24th June as St John the Baptist Day, where it is a Quarter Day. St John’s Eve is celebrated the night before with the lighting of bonfires and candles to see in May Day itself.
This is a time for feasting and merry making, party games and celebrating life. It is also seen as a day of magic where you might get to see the Fairy folk or an Elf!
St Joseph of Arimathea (31st July)
Legend tells that Joseph of Arimathea visited south western Britain on business as a tin merchant and on at least one occasion brought his nephew, the young Jesus, with him. Jesus spent time with the druids, teaching them and being taught by them. Following his death on the cross, the holy family fled the middle east and settled in this part of Britain that Joseph already knew. At this time, Britain was independent and not under the control of the Romans. The legend of the Holy Grael is one that has gripped the English for centuries, despite pre-dating the establishment of England in Britain. It represents a very important part of our mystical and religious traditions.
Although the Church of England celebrates this day on 1st August, we celebrate it on the day before (31st of July) in common with the Eastern Orthodox and some protestant denominations. This is mainly because we do not wish it to clash with the important folk festival of Lammas Day. We would also like to develop a greater symbiosis between these two days to create something of a two-day festival.
Lammas Day (1st August)
Lammas, or Loaf Mass, Day is the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year. On this day, it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the new crop and in many parts of England tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords. In Anglo Saxon times, it was also called the ‘feast of the first fruits’ and the new harvest would be blessed. In medieval times the feast was known as the "Gule of August". The meaning of Gule is no longer known for certain. It could either mean the Yule of August, which was spelt ‘Geole’ in Anglo Saxon English, or be an Anglicisation of the Welsh words for the 1st of August gŵyl aust, literally meaning the ‘feast of August’.
Some writers have associated Lammas with the Celtic pagan festival of Lughnasadh, named after the god Lugh who is also reputed to have given his name to London. The festival is celebrated with bonfires and merry making, overseen by a period of peace – reflecting the similar practice over Yuletide. In Ireland it was traditionally the time for handfastings which were trial marriages lasting for a year and a day after which the couple would decide whether to formalise the marriage or part company.
Transfiguration (6th August)
The Gospels tell us that Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James and John, climbed up a mountain to pray. On the mountain, Jesus began to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appeared next to him and he spoke to them. Jesus is called "Son" by the father as a voice from the heavens.
The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the Gospel story. The setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as a bridge between heaven and earth. In the Transfiguration, we see Christ’s glorified body – that which transcends death and foreshadows the resurrection. The Greeks use the word metamorphosis which actually better explains the importance of this change.
The Falling Asleep or Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (15th August)
Christian tradition holds that the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body (like His) was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven. Some western Christians believe she was resurrected before being assumed into heaven. Most Protestants do not observe this feast, at least in its traditional form, as there is no biblical basis for it. Anglicans use this day to honour Mary and celebrate her entry into heaven without necessarily believing she was physically resurrected or assumed.
Holy Cross Day (14th August)
Whereas Good Friday observes the crucifixion of Christ, this day celebrates the cross itself as an instrument of salvation. We are reminded of the Anglo Saxon poem ‘Dream of the Rood’ in which the cross tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion.
This is a remarkable story of Anglo Saxon Christianity and one that should be given great prominence by the modern Anglo Saxon Christian. It starts with the account of a vision by someone having a dream. In this dream, or vision, the narrator is speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. He notes how the Cross is covered with gems and is aware of how wretched he is compared to how glorious the Cross is. However, he comes to see that amidst the beautiful stones, it is stained with blood.
In section two of the poem, the Cross shares its account of Jesus' death. It begins with the enemy coming to cut the tree down and carrying it away. The tree learns that it is not to be the bearer of a criminal, but instead Christ crucified. The Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, taking on insurmountable pain for the sake of mankind. It is not just Christ, but the Cross as well that is pierced with nails. Christ and the Cross have become one. Then, just as with Christ, the Cross is resurrected and adorned with gold and silver. It is honoured above all trees just as Jesus is honoured above all men.
Michaelmas – feast of the Harvest Home (29th September)
Michaelmas (pronounced ‘Mickel-mas’) is the feast of St Michael the Archangel. It corresponds roughly to the autumn equinox which marks the shortening of days and the beginning of autumn. It was traditionally celebrated in England as the end of the harvest cycle and was associated with much feasting. With the crops safely gathered, Michaelmas marked the time for landowners to stock barns and sheds full of food, ready for the winter ahead. Meats and fishes were salted, to be eaten during the cold months ahead and a new accounting and farming year officially began. Michaelmas also marked an end of many activities which could only be carried out during the summer months, such as fishing and fruit picking. On the day after the feast, farm labourers and domestic servants presented themselves at a ‘mop fair’, where they could be hired for work in the coming farming year. Many villages celebrated Michaelmas with a harvest feast, which offered all the best of what had been gathered and anticipated good times to come, with cupboards full for the coming months.
Michaelmas marked the end of the agricultural year and was the time that farmers paid off their debts, often presenting their landlords with a goose. Goose fairs were common and some still take place. In common with the theme, the traditional meal for the day includes a harvest goose or ‘stubble-goose’ and a special kind of oatcake called a St Michael's bannock. Eating goose on Michaelmas day is said to bring financial good luck for the coming year.
Whilst Michaelmas is now observed on the 29th September, it used to be on 10th October under the old Calendar. This is still sometimes referred to as ‘Old Michaelmas’ or ‘Devil’s Spit Day’. This is because of an old legend that the devil was kicked out of heaven on 11th October and landed on a bramble (blackberry) bush. Each year, it is said that he takes his revenge by spoiling brambles after this date. Some say he spits on them, others that he pees on them! Either way, it is attested that brambles do not taste as good after the 11th and so you should eat as many of them as you can on Michaelmas day! Michaelmas dumplings are a traditional pudding for this day and consist of suet dumplings with chopped apple inside them, simmered on a bed of sweet brambles and served with cream to symbolise the devil’s spit!
Michaelmas day was traditionally a day of reckoning, as quarter days marked the times when rent was collected. It also marks the beginning of the legal and school year.
St Michael is the warrior Archangel and is honoured as the protector of the individual against evil forces. He is also honoured as a healer. A winter curfew came into operation in many communities from Michaelmas Day and the church bells were sounded early in the evening from Michaelmas onwards, for the town gates to be closed to incomers until morning.
Michaelmas is also sometimes also known as the "festival of strong will". This reflects the association of St Michael in many Germanic countries, including England, with Woden or Odin and sometimes also with Thor. Churches dedicated to St Michael, especially in Germany, are often found on hills and other high places which would originally have been sacred places dedicated to Woden. An ancient practice, from well before the Christian era, is the corn dolly. This was made from the last sheaf of wheat of the harvest and was woven into a human shape, to take the place of honour on the harvest feast table. It was believed to bring good fortune for the new farming year. The dolly is likely to represent mother earth, or Eartha, who in mythology would be fertilised each year by Sky Father to bring forth the new crops of the new season. In time, she became associated with the Holy Mother of God who brought forth the incarnation of God himself into our world.
Michaelmas used to be a major feast in England, but is hardly noticed by most people today. And yet it is a hugely important folk festival, our traditional harvest festival and the English equivalent of American Thanksgiving. There are some signs that it is regaining some of its popularity and this is to be encouraged.
Feast of the Guardian Angels (2nd October)
A guardian angel is an angel that is assigned to protect and guide a particular person, group, kingdom, or country. They offer prayers to God on our behalf and can warn us on impeding danger. Some people claim to have seen them. The concept goes back deep into our folklore where there was a strong belief in spirits (wights) that inhabited and protected various places.
O angel of God,
appointed by divine mercy to be my guardian,
enlighten and protect,
direct and govern me this day.
St Alfred the Great (26th October)
We consider Alfred to be our greatest king and protector of our land and people. He paved the way for the Anglo Saxon tribes to come together to form England. He was a great champion of learning and the rule of law. His canonisation was halted following the Norman invasion, but we consider him to be a true Saint. Indeed, he should be the Patron Saint of England.
Feast of the Eve of All Hallows or Hallowmas (Halloween) (31st October)
This marks the beginning of the three day period of Hallowtide. All Hallow’s Eve itself is a day of preparation for the two principal feasts that follow it. It is a celebration of family, both living and dead, and a time to light candles to welcome ancestral spirits into our homes and to say prayers for them. It is also a time for a bit of fun, carving out Jack’o’Lanterns from Swedes or Pumpkins, dressing up in ghoulish outfits, trick or treating and playing party games.
All Saints Day (1st November)
This is a day of more sober reflection following the merriment of All Hallows Eve. It is a celebration of our Saints and Martyrs, collectively known as the ‘Communion of Saints’. On this day, we should remember the holy people of our folk and of what is needed to become a Saint. We should also remember our martyrs and heroes who have died for our folk and our faith.
All Souls Day (2nd November)
All Saints is followed by the Feast of All Souls, which celebrates Faithful Departed. These are all those souls who have not yet been purified and perfected in heaven. It relates more to one’s own departed family and ancestors, but can also celebrate the dear departed of our folk as a whole. On this day, we remember them and pray for them to help them on their journey to become Saints. It also used to be customary to visit graves on this day and to hold special meals in which the departed are remembered and commemorated. A traditional biscuit eaten on this day is the ‘soul cake’, a type of short cake. I remember these at school. They were eaten with prunes and custard and we called them ‘grave stones.’
Remembrance Day (11th November)
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
On this day we remember and honour those who have died and been injured in wars protecting our freedom and independence down the years. It is a strange coincidence that, and for different reasons, the Anglo Saxon term for November means ‘blood month’ or even ‘sacrifice month’.
Christ the All Ruler
This is held on the last Sunday before advent and better known as Christ the King. In Greek Orthodox Churches, He is known as Christos Pantokrator, meaning Ruler of All.
On this day, we focus on Christ as the Ruler of the World, the Cosmic Christ who transcends all matter. This is the resurrected and ascended Christ. He is the Christ that remains with us to this day and with whom we have a personal and collective relationship. We are reminded that Christ is strong, not weak, and that our faith is in compassionate strength.
Christ the All Ruler is the ultimate Knight.