Harvest Festival Fun - Old traditions and New ideas for Fall
Harvest festival History gives us new ideas for celebrating this wonderful time of year!
This page will introduce you to the history of the Harvest Festival (often called Michaelmas, especially in the UK), its saint, Saint Michael, and give you ideas and activities for modern versions of old traditions and the festival of Michaelmas.
In modern times we have developed some of our own traditions, such as the Fall Foliage Festivals and the early fall State Fairs. But there are charming harvest festival traditions that can be carried on in modern form too.
Like what? Well... you could keep the Scottish tradition of Carroting Sunday alive with a carrot salad, or make up a batch of Dragon Biscuits for your family to "slay" with strawberry jam to celebrate the strength you can feel in the autumn! Or you could continue the Italian traditions by making a Margherita Cake for your Harvest activity. Or a long healing bath, like they do in Turkey. OR you could do a good deed, and give your regards to St. Michael, the patron saint of Harvest time.
Why is Michael the Saint of Harvest Festivals?
Saint Michael's saint's day is right around the Autumn Equinox, which is when the days begin to grow shorter, and we have darker and darker days. Michael is the Herald of Light, and was seen as a protector of people in the darkness.
In the Celtic tradition, he is known as Michael nam Buadh, which is translated as "Michael the Victorious." The picture here shows him as the Victorious One. Victorious over what? The story goes that Michael conquered the powers of darkness, and was the angel who hurled Lucifer, the representative of evil, out of heaven because of his deceitfulness and wrong-doings. This is the traditional theme of good versus evil. And that is why he is also considered a "dragon-slayer."
St. Michael is NOT St. George, but they are both "Dragon-Slayers"
You can tell that this is St. Michael and not St. George because the Latin on his shield is "quis ut deus" - which means "Who is like God," which is the meaning of the name Michael. The reference to dragons comes from the book of Revelation: Revelation 12:7 "And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon." This is referring to the conflict with evil - which happened both at the beginning of time and will happen the end of time. On another site I noticed some comment about St. Michael being the patron saint of Canterbury Cathedral. After checking with a friend who works there, I have found that there is NO special connection with Canterbury and St. Michael, but there are many many churches that are dedicated to St. Michael around the UK and Europe, many of which are in high places or on mountaintops.
But all that said, St. Michael is the saint associated with the Harvest Festival time in many countries around the world. .There is an energy you can get from that name, because if Michael was a dragon slayer, you can be too! Autumn is not just a time to celebrate bounty from the fields, but is also a time to celebrate the free will and courage of Michael as the days begin to get dark early and winter sets in. Do a good deed in the Autumn with the courage of Michael behind you. (Parents - check the end for the poem about St. Michael and doing good deeds.)
Want more ideas on how to celebrate the harvest festival?
Harvest festivals around the world - it is amazing to see how the harvest is celebrated outside of your own area.
Celebrating the Patron Saint of the Harvest - Make Dragon Biscuits!
St. Michael must have eaten these every day...
Making Loaves of Bread was always a traditional part of the Harvest Festival season in the UK. In Scotland the people made special bread as part of their celebrations using all the different grains they had in their fields. This is a modern bread for celebrating the Harvest and Michaelmas! Shaped like a dragon in honor of St. Michael's slaying of the dragon.
If you want to have a special bread for your Harvest Festival celebration you could make your own Dragon Biscuits. You can have a fun time "slaying the dragon," if you like that idea, use red jam as your jam for the bread - slaying the dragon will become more realistic! And the good part is - it is really very easy. Honest!
Want the recipe for Dragon Biscuits? Click here
So what did they really eat as festival food on Michaelmas?
The Traditional Roast Goose and...
In the UK, during the Michaelmas season people used to eat roast goose. It has to do with If you want to read more about the custom and why roast geese, please visit this amazing page about the roast goose: at www.europeancuisines.com.
Basically farmers raised geese for meat, not eggs. So when it was harvest time, they had to decide which animals to keep for the winter, and which animals they could afford to eat as meat. It is strange to think of the fall as the start of the farming year, but that is how it was considered. It was during harvest time that rents and debts were paid to the landlords, and as part of the rent it was customary to "pay" a fattened goose. If the family had one left over, they they had a successful year, and it was a sign of good luck for the year to follow.
If you could eat a roast goose around Michaelmas, it was considered very fortunate. You can see the proof of this in Jane Austen's writings to a friend on October 11, 1813, "I dined upon goose yesterday, which, I hope, will secure a good sale of my [new book's] second edition." Eating a goose would bring a fortunate twist to the celebration of Michaelmas. In Yorkshire and Lincolnshire they scattered grain as an offering of thanks to the birds in order to bring good luck to their farms.
They ate carrots... and gave them as gifts
You could make a carrot cake or a dip that goes well with carrots!
In the Scottish Hebrides they had a special carrot digging party on "Carrot Sunday," the week before Michaelmas, that marked the beginning of their festivities. Yes. Carrots. I guess people who didn't have the internet needed fun things to do too!
This is how it worked:
The women and girls would gather together and go out to dig wild carrots. They would dig special triangular holes with a tool that had three prongs. In some representations of St. Michael, he has a three pointed spear and a three pointed shield. As they dug up the carrots they would recite a blessing:
Cleft, fruitful, fruitful, fruitful,
Joy of carrots surpassing upon me
Michael the brave endowing me
Bride* the fair be aiding me.
(Bride* is another Saint, considered the midwife to Mary, and also a patron saint for sailors, like Michael)
These carrots were considered very special, and were tied into bunches of three with a red thread. If you dug up a carrot with a forked root, it was a lucky sign, and these bunches of carrots were given as gifts to visitors on Michaelmas Day. I like the idea of the "joy of carrots surpassing upon me." I like carrots a lot, but many of my Chinese friends here in Shanghai think the strong taste of carrot root is too much.
This was a really busy holiday, much like Christmas is in the United States in our time. The evening before the holiday they would spend most of the night cooking and preparing the food. The women would bake a bread called "Struan Michael", made of all the different kinds of grain from their fields, and the men would prepare a Michaelmas Lamb for roasting the next day.
The men watched their horses carefully that night. Why?
In in this way Michaelmas was also a little like April Fools Day, because on that day people were allowed to "steal" horses to use for visiting more distant friends and family, and in their circuiting of the cemeteries. The men would also hold horse races, and a good time was had by all. If we celebrated Michaelmas in this way now, perhaps the trick would be to get hold of a friends car keys to take it for a ride? Probably a bad idea...
Carrots can be hard and sometimes difficult to chew. They can also have a root-ish taste. But if you get smaller fresh carrots from a farmer's market, they will be tender and sweet, and this recipe will please anyone. It is fresh, fragrant, and sweet with the fruits of the harvest, carrots and raisins. And it is incredibly simple.
- 4 cups grated carrots
- 3/4 cup raisins or more - if you like lots of raisins in it.
- TWO DRESSING POSSIBILITIES
- 1/4 cup mayonaise
- 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons sugar - depending on how sweet you like it
- 2 -3 tablespoons milk
- OR - If you don't like this sort of dressing - you can use
- the juice of one orange and one lemon
- with honey to sweeten to taste
Why do we call it "harvest?"
Haerfest is an Old English word, and it means "Autumn."
What did I do this year to celebrate the Harvest?
I will tell you.
I bought a lot of chrysanthemums to plant in the garden, yellow and white.
And I made a racing car from a BIG zucchini from the garden.
You can have a lot of fun with vegetables, and you don't have to just carve pumpkins, but you can carve other veggies too.
Enjoying a bumper harvest? - You can have some fun carving some of those vegetables into gnome or fairy houses!
This is a wee garden gnome house carved from a golden beet.
You don't have to carve a pumpkin. You can hollow out solid veggies and carve them just like you can carve a pumpkin.
Want to see more?
Fun ways to celebrate holidays - Michaelmas
Wonderful activities to connect to the seasons that will create magic moments for family and friends. This book was published in 1982 and it is now a classic resource to give you ways to connect with holidays, festivals, and seasonal awareness. It contains crafts, projects, poetry, songs, traditional stories, games, and more.
A more serious resource, with more history and background. This is a wonderful book for people who enjoy having a deeper understanding of the traditions and history at the roots of the church. Excellent resource. Check it out online at Amazon. This book has a search and look function.
Here you can find stories and recipes about Italian holidays. If you have Italian background, or if you love Italian food, you will like this book.
A good retelling of the story of Saint George. I know, Saint Michael wasn't Saint George, but he was a dragon-slayer, along with quite a few other saints, and the story would go well with the feeling of the day.
Michaelmas has not just been celebrated in the UK
How Michaelmas has been celebrated in other countries
Just so you know - Michaelmas was celebrated all over Europe. Here are some other countries and how they celebrated:
They celebrate with a harvest festival celebrating all the fruits of the harvest. They also have a saying - that on St. Michael's Day "the heat goes up into the heavens." That is true in many places in the northern hemisphere - here in Shanghai, China too. If you would like to see some pictures of a modern Italian play about S. Michael at an Italian church, go here.
Helen Barolini in her book Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988, refers to a yellow sponge cake called 'Margherita' (daisy) made on Michaelmas. You can find the recipe for Italian Margherita Cake here.
She also records a rhyme of the day, about sleep:
Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine
And Michaelmas eleven.
Those lucky people who get to sleep for eleven hours! So that is another delicious Harvest Festival activity for you - try getting 11 hours of sleep!
You can do as they do in Turkey and take a healing bath!
St. Michael was known as the great heavenly physician in Constantinople. About 50 miles south of the city was a special place where Turks would wait for visitations from St. Michael as they slept. In Yurme, Turkey, the healing baths were also dedicated to St. Michael, the healer.
That means you could spend a day at the beach, by the pool, or take a relaxing bath with sea salts or even bubble bath, and it could be considered a Harvest Festival celebration. How good can you get? In the fall if you have any lavender or other herbs for baths in your yard, don't forget to harvest them and take a long, relaxing soak in the tub.
Enjoying a meal with lots of cheese and butter - yum!
In Norway, Michaelmas is Mikkelsmesse, and is also celebrated on September 29. At this time of year the herd girls bring the cows and goats back from the mountains to the valleys where they will stay the winter. Through the summer they will have made butter, cheese, and other dairy products to tide them over the winter and to sell to others. Their return is celebrated with great rejoicing-- dancing, singing and feasting. On a Norwegian site, they described it in this way: "When the girls return home in the autumn with fat, flower-decked animals and full butter tubs, the joy of the valley folk knows no bounds."
Sometimes when I eat garlic bread dripping with butter I get that "joy that knows no bounds" feeling too! When you have a meal of bread and cheese for the Harvest festival, you are continuing a long Norwegian tradition of celebrating cows, cheese, butter, and the rich tradition of the dairy.
On Michaelmas - Fun links to visit
Here are a number of good links about Michaelmas and the traditions and customs associated with it.
Some links to investigate
- Waldorf school and their festivities
A completely charming site that I love with many wonderful ideas for children to use in following the natural cycle of the seasons and much more. It is really worth a visit.
This link has Carmichael's original description of how to make "Struan Michael" for the Michaelmas celebration.
Poem about St. Michael from the Gaelic Tradition
THOU Michael the victorious,
I make my circuit under thy shield,
Thou Michael of the white steed,
And of the bright brilliant blades,
Conqueror of the dragon,
Be thou at my back,
Thou ranger of the heavens,
Thou warrior of the King of all,
O Michael the victorious,
My pride and my guide,
O Michael the victorious,
The glory of mine eye.
For Kids: More poems about St. Michael collected by the Waldorf Tradition
Doing Good Deeds is a wonderful topic to talk to your children about. Even just talking to them about "what is a good deed?" will give them something to think about. St. Michael and "slaying the dragon" is a good way to begin with children, Of course, they won't be able to slay a literal dragon, but there are other things they can do - standing up for a friend who is being bullied, or helping their classmates with a task are all "slaying the dragon." This thought will help them think more often about working for "what is right and good."
Brave and true will I be,
Each good deed sets me free,
Each kind word makes me strong.
I will fight for the right!
I will conquer the wrong!
Sword of Michael brightly gleaming,
Down to earth its light is streaming,
May we see its shining rays
In the Winter's darkest days.
Share grain and seeds with the birds - Another traditional activity for Harvest time
In farming areas the birds will naturally eat their fill of grain and seeds. But in other areas, they will be grateful for food you put out for them, especially those on their trip south to warmer climes.
And what are Michaelmas Daisies?
No relation to dragons...
Thanks to my squid friend WordCustard, I have one little addition to this page. In England, the daisies that bloom in the fall are called Michaelmas Daisies. In the US we call them Asters, or "fall asters." but I like the idea of calling them Michalemas Daisies, because it has such a traditional, gentle ring to it. So the next time you walk by a clump of Asters in the US, you can knowingly nod and say, "Ah yes, Michaelmas Daisies!"
So that brings me to the last suggestion I have for a Harvest time activity - going out into the fields and picking some of the beautiful common wild flowers you have in your area and bringing them into the house. Perhaps you will find Michaelmas Daisies, or you may find others instead. No matter what, these fall flowers are some of the loveliest of the year, because in a short time, we will have frosts, and the tender plant world will die down for the year.