What is Michaelmas?
Michaelmas (pronounced MI-kel-miss) was originally a Christian festival in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It is the feast day of the archangel St. Michael, and is celebrated on the 29th of September each year.
Michael is an archangel in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but his festival is one that can observed by people of all faiths and spiritual paths.
Michaelmas falls near the autumn equinox, marking the quickly darkening days in the northern hemisphere. It comes at a time when the weather is rapidly changing and the days are noticeably shorter, and we have a natural instinct to prepare for the colder months ahead.
It marks the end of the harvest and the time to begin to put away food for the winter. It is a time of apple picking and cider making, a time to make warm soup and gather round the hearth. It is the time to put our summer clothes away, and pull out our sweaters, hats, and mittens.
Michaelmas marks the season when we feel the impulse to turn inward after the long, warm days of summer, and gather up strength and fortitude to face the colder days and long nights of the winter ahead.
Celebrating Michaelmas at a Waldorf School
Michaelmas is typically the first festival of the new school year celebrated in Waldorf schools. The festival usually includes a harvest theme with food such as apple cider, fresh baked bread, and pumpkin muffins, as well as games and activities of courage. The grade school children will usually perform a play of St. George taming a fiery dragon with the spiritual help of the archangel, St. Michael, who gives him courage.
Taming the Dragon
St. George, the patron saint of England, is the human manifestation of St. Michael on earth and their stories are closely related.
The story of St. George taming the dragon symbolizes the inner courage it takes to face our human challenges. As the days grow colder and the nights grow longer, we must find and bring forth our own inner light when the sun, warmth and growth of the earth are fading.
St. Michael, who gave courage to St. George, gives us courage to uphold what is right and true, and the strength to face the challenges that lie ahead. The story speaks to children in a deeply symbolic way, feeding their innate need for truth and justice.
“Michaelmas is a great time to ponder our own inner dragons and to cultivate the courage and strength necessary for self development.” – from Waldorf Publications newsletter
Celebrating Michaelmas at Home
If you are not part of a Waldorf community, here are some ideas for observing the festival and the season at home:
- Learn Michaelmas songs and verses. The Autumn volume of Wynstones seasonal series has several to choose from.
- Create a Seasonal Nature Table depicting St. George and the Dragon. You could display autumn leaves, small pumpkins and gourds to represent the harvest. Or you could display the Black Knight with Red Horse, Dragon, Cave, and Large Angel wooden figures from Ostheimer of Germany. Orange and red play silks can represent the colors of fall and the courage of St. Michael.
- Tell stories about St. Michael or St. George. One of my favorites is from the beautifully illustrated picture book St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges.
- Read “The Most Beautiful Dragon in the Whole World” from Reg Down’s charming collection of autumn stories, The Festival of Stones.
- Do fun outdoor activities that require strength, courage and bravery: take a hike, have a tug-of-war with friends and family, have a scavenger hunt for “dragon eggs” (these can be small gourds spray painted gold).
- Bake Dragon Bread. This is a loaf of bread shaped like a dragon. You will find a recipe with accompanying story in the book All Year Round: A Calendar of Celebrations.
- Make a dragon candle for Michaelmas. Instructions can be found in the book All Year Round.
Of course, preparation is as important a part of a festival as the day itself. And Michaelmas is the beginning of the fall season. These activities can be extended and enjoyed throughout the month of October.
As adults, we can use this time to focus on our own inner work and spiritual growth. Take time for meditation and journal writing, and think about the areas in which you would like to grow.
Wishing you strength and courage this Michaelmas season, and may all your dragons be tamed!
Have you celebrated Michaelmas at a school or at home? Are you inspired to begin a new tradition? How do you prepare for the coming season? As always, your comments are always welcome!