A Celtic Michaelmas

Michaelmas daisies (Symphyotrichum spp.) at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve

A variety of purple and gold asters long have been associated with today’s Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas.  The Aster amellus, or Italian starwort, is the flower originally dedicated to Archangel Michael, but a variety of fall asters now carry the saint’s name.

One of four ‘Quarter Days’ tied to solstice or equinox — Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25) — the feast evolved as a complex mixture of sacred and secular practices. I wrote last year about English traditions surrounding the feast, but Celts, too, had their ways of marking the end of summer’s productivity  and the beginning of a new agricultural cycle.

The baking of ‘struan Micheil,’ a cake made with oats, rye, and barley grown during the previous year, was particularly important. Alexander Carmichael, in his book Celtic Invocations, notes several details of the complicated process. Struans were baked by the eldest daughter of the family, guided by her mother. A large struan was set aside for the family; smaller ones were given to individual family members, neighbors, or the poor.

On the morning of the feast, baskets of struans were taken to the church to be blessed. Later, at home after Mass, families would share the large struan, along with portions of lamb. As Carmichael describes it:

[The Father] places the board with the bread and the flesh on the centre of the table. Then the family, standing around and holding a bit of struan in the left hand and a piece of lamb in the right, raise the triumphal song of Michael… who guards and guides them.
The man and his wife then put struan into one beehive basket, and lamb into another, and go out to distribute them among the poor who have neither fruits nor flocks of their own.

Comments always are welcome.

40 thoughts on “A Celtic Michaelmas

    1. While my father’s side of the family was Swedish, my mother’s was primarily Irish, so I’ve had more than a passing interest in Celtic culture and history. We’ve been able to trace my maternal line back to Ireland, to County Down, which may help explain my grandfather’s fondness for singing “Star of the County Down” to me.

  1. I had to look up smooring a fire. (I see now that a few sections in your link involve smooring a fire.) There seems to be an etymological connection to smother. As for struan, it might be the same as Irish sruthán, the diminutive of a word that meant ‘stream’ or ‘current.’ What the semantic connection would be, I don’t know.

    1. I enjoyed the piece about smooring that you linked to. Carmichael notes there are many formulae for the occasion; he includes a different one. Of course, if you’re going to have your morning coffee, you’d best get the fire going again, so there’s a ‘blessing of the kindling,’ too. It’s just so wonderful. Here are some portions:

      I will kindle my fire this morning
      In the presence of the holy angels of heaven,
      In the presence of Ariel of the loveliest form,
      In the presence of Uriel of the myriad charms:
      Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
      Without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun,
      But the Holy Son of God to shield me….

      “God, kindle Thou in my heart within
      a flame of love to my neighbour,
      to my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
      to the brave, to the knave, to the thrall…

      Just for fun, I imagined everyone blessing their coffee pot in such a manner before throwing the switch: tradition meeting technology, if you will.

    1. When I read about the struan and lamb, and the blessing over them, I couldn’t help but think of the Christian Mass. On the other hand, there was something about it that reminded me of the Passover Seder, as well.

      As for woad, there’s an interesting history here. I love this: “Grown in Europe since the Stone Age, it has a long association with East Anglia, notably with Boudicca and the Iceni tribe who used woad to colour their faces before going into battle. Further north the Picts also gained notoriety for their body painting with blue woad dye. The Romans referred to these Ancient Britons as ‘Picts’ as it is Celtic for “painted.”

      Woad balls still can be purchased, should you be inclined toward a little face paint, or hand-dyed tee shirts. Apparently knitters who dye their own yarns are quite fond of it.

      1. It makes a beautiful blue dye, but I know some folks in northern Utah who are not fond of Dyer’s Woad! I remember when my aunt there, used to take her youth group out to yank it out of the hillsides, which turned out to be mostly a futile effort. It has a pretty yellow flower, but is considered an invasive pest, and now covers thousands of acres in that part of the state.

        1. That’s interesting, because when I saw photos of the plant, the first thing that came to mind was that mustard you talked about some time back — the one that I think is the same as our bastard cabbage, and that would take over the world, given half a chance.

  2. As Robert noted, it’s always interesting to see how religions and traditions are woven together, especially at equinoxes and solstices. Seasonal changes are obviously critical for agrarian and survival needs, but even those of us who don’t need to worry so much about crops and shelter are reminded of the rhythms of life as we watch the seasons change.

    1. As pretty as asters and falling leaves can be, I think the rhythm of life I most enjoy in this season is the migrations. Last week, the first ospreys showed up; today, I saw the first of the Monarchs passing through. It won’t be long until the whooping cranes arrive, and when they do — Mirabile dictu! — the wolfberries will be ripe and ready to sustain them as they recover from their long flight. We’re surrounded by unseen cycles; it was the Celtic way to recognize and hallow them all.

  3. Wonderful post! My spirit felt nourished after reading this, and once again I am filled with admiration for the Irish culture. (No accident that my daughters’ names are Deirdre and Shannon.)

    1. I’m happy it pleased you, Laurie. It doesn’t surprise me that it did. You and Clif have chosen a way of life that accords in many ways with that earlier time, and I suspect any early Celt who showed up to share time with you would feel right at home.

    1. It’s wonderful how many species there are. I was surprised to learn that some of the “European” asters actually were taken there by American plant collectors. There was a lot more travel, and much more communication, than we sometimes realize.

  4. I have never heard of this tradition, so thank you for enlightening me. I’m Irish on my Dad’s side, but he was of a scientific mindset and didn’t cotton much to anything that couldn’t be proven. Obviously, not much Irish or Celtic lore came to us kids by way of him, ha! I love these purple flowers though.

    1. Have you read anything by Madeleine L’Engle? I’ve not read her young adult books, but I do have two of her journals; that’s where I first learned about Michaelmas. She wrote about it primarily as a season rather than as a Feast Day, but that season stuck with me, and every year when I see the Michaelmas daisies, I remember her book. It was years before I started learning about the Celtic celebrations. A friend from Liberia gifted me Carmichael’s book in 1979, and every year I love it more.

  5. Extremely interesting to delve into a bit of Celtic folklore today! Thank you for the stimulation.

    Speaking of stimulation – I took note of your coffee pot blessing. As I poured hot water over the grounds and began to bless the process, I got to this part: “In the presence of Ariel of the loveliest form,” … and was immediately interrupted by Gini wanting to know who this Ariel person was.

    Back to “Thank you, Lord, for the coffee.”

    Was going to stoop to something about “(coffee) grounds for divorce”, but this blog is too sophisticated for such foolishness.

    1. Ha! If we gave up on foolishness, this blog would grind to a halt.

      While the Carmichael book’s filled with prayers, blessings, and invocations, I’m wondering whether there were a few imprecations lurking about, too. The book I have includes only selections from one volume of a six-volume series, but in such a comprehensive collection I would have expected a few folk curses. Perhaps Carmichael came across them, but chose not to include them. I’m not sure what the early Celtic analogue to a computer crash would have been, but I’ll bet they had words for whatever it was.

    1. The original of Carmichael’s collection, the Carmina Gadelica, is gorgeously illustrated. Here’s a sample of some of the initial letters used in the text. You can enlarge them to see the exquisite detail.

      How nice that your father’s birthday fell on this quarter-day. It would have been much better than the last quarter-day of the year: Christmas!

    1. I’m used to finding the smaller asters, like the marsh aster, but between the flooding and the mowing around here, there wasn’t an aster to be seen at the refuges where they usually run wild. That made finding these at the Watson Preserve even more special — and besides, we don’t usually see these larger, purple asters around here. (At least, I don’t.)

      Just for kicks, I went to YouTube and searched for ‘Michaelmas.’ I was more than surprised by the number of videos showing Michaelmas pageants and programs from schools. I suspect the point of connection for the kids was the story of St. Michael slaying the dragon.

    1. Now I’m wondering if there are other feast days with -mas at the end. Christmas emerged from the phrase “Christ Mass,” and I’m sure Michaelmas was formed the same way. There might be others on the Catholic calendar that I’m not aware of. Like you, I think ‘Michaelmas’ is just a lovely word, and the Michaelmas daisies are even lovelier.

  6. This and other Celtic prayers are prayers of mindfulness, to be recited mindfully. The Celts were an introspective people. One has only to look at their art to see that.

    1. There was an appealing wholeness to their vision of the world. So many of the divisions that we waste time arguing about (sacred/secular comes to mind, particularly) were foreign to them. Beyond that, their sense of their place in the grand scheme of things, marked by gratitude and modesty, would do a lot ot address some of our problems.

    1. I imagined that the struan was as heavy as a rock: a scone of sorts, but absent the leavening. Whatever it was back in the day, there are recipes galore online for struan bread — generally, a nice multigrain loaf that sounds pretty tasty.

  7. That’s a lovely daisy and similar in appearance to our New England Aster which I am hoping to photograph this weekend.
    I’ve not been aware of Michaelmas so thanks for the introduction as well as history. Around here the word Celtic is pronounced with a soft ‘c’ because of the basketball team, but I recognize the hard ‘c’ of Celtic. I love the music of that tradition.

    1. Every now and then I’ve heard the basketball team’s name pronounced with that hard ‘C’ — probably by someone who doesn’t know a thing about the game, and doesn’t follow the team.

      I enjoyed your musical link. If we expand a bit, and include sort-of-Irish groups, we’d eventually come to my favorite morning song by the Flying Fish Sailors: “Give Me Coffee.

      1. Or maybe they are trying to correct the pronunciation. It’s funny how the language changes. I am still rankled by financed being pronounced “finnanced” or even worse the word midwifery…”midwiffery”.

        I can hear that being played in coffee shops everywhere. Their song at the top of the menu “Flupandemic” seems like it might be appropriate these days although a little less humorous. Speaking Of Irish music and the Celtics, this gets played at every home game.

        1. There’s a great video that was created to go with “Flu Pandemic.” I first heard the song live at a RenFest years and years ago. I’ve been tempted to post the video a few times over the past months, but not everyone shares my sense of humor.

          1. That is a good one. I don’t blame you for your hesitation. It is probably too soon for some to see the humor with the numbers climbing and seemingly little seriousness in some quarters in the pursuit of controlling the spread.

    1. Asters of every sort make me happy. I like the larger, purple fall asters like these, but the tiny little ones are fun, too. Sometimes they bloom like a cloud around our creek banks and ponds.

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