The feast of St Michaelmas

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IT IS sometimes suggested that we need a day off in autumn, an official holiday between the end of summer and Christmas.

While Hallowe’en is striving to fill the gap, there used to be a huge festival at the end of September that has vanished from our calendar.

This was Michaelmas, the feast day of St Michael on September 29.

It marked the end of harvest, and was one of the old quarter days when rents fell due and farm workers and servants changed employers at the hiring fairs.

The big day couldn’t go by without a family gathering. Everyone who could afford to ate roast goose stuffed with apples, the traditional dish since at least the 15th century.

Geese were at their best as they’d been allowed to graze the stubble after harvest, picking up any grains missed by the gleaners.

As turkeys and Christmas go together today, so it was with geese and Michaelmas, until around 1900.

At Michaelmas fairs, surplus farm animals were sold off before winter set in. This is still an important time for selling stock, especially sheep.

It’s when northern hill farmers sell breeding stock to farmers in the lowlands, who cross the hardy hill sheep with other breeds.

According to legend, when St Michael threw Lucifer out of Heaven, he landed on earth in the middle of a bramble bush.

So every year, the Devil returns at Michaelmas to blight the fruit by spitting on it. If you haven’t picked any blackberries yet, it’s probably best not to bother.

Michaelmas is a day for predicting the wind, according to old weather lore.

Whichever way the wind is blowing on September 29 that will be the prevailing wind for the next three months, and this tells us where our winter weather will be coming from.

Golden Month

Here comes October, and it’s well served by weather lore because like us, folk in the past were wondering what winter would bring.

This was the time to preserve and dry foodstuffs, repair winter clothes, and stock up with wood or peat to see the family through the cold months. Farmers knew by now how much fodder they had, and that governed how many animals could be kept over winter and how many should be slaughtered.

It helped to know if the winter would be a hard one, and our ancestors believed that October held the key to this. It’s a fairly mild month, especially near the coast, because the ocean is releasing the heat it absorbs during summer.

But if October becomes unseasonably warm with late leaf fall, the old lore says that indicates a hard new year, prolonging the winter.

Plants and animals used to be observed keenly. If the oak hung on to its leaves, animals grew extra-thick winter coats, squirrels filled their larders early and foxes barked more than usual, then a hard winter lay ahead.

Weather lore pays particular attention to the number of misty days in the month. For every October mist there’ll be a day of snow, light or heavy like the mist.

Though it sounds ridiculous, this is usually a good guide.

Not only does it tell us if we’ll have snow, it also foretells how bad it will be. Try it for yourself; only count the mist that persists all day, not the dawn mist that’s cleared by the sun.

You might be thinking, why bother? After all, we have the Met Office to tell us what’s going to happen. But their forecasts cover large areas. The point about using folklore to predict the weather is that the focus is very local.

A sign only applies to the parish where it’s seen. A good example is the saying concerning the first frost, which can be very localised.

If there’s no frost in your area before October’s full moon, then you’ll be frost-free until full moon in November.

It’s useful for knowing when to cover delicate plants, or to bring the geraniums in from the cold.