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.

Off Broadway

The Evergreen Cemetery on Broadway Street, Galveston

Few first-time visitors to Galveston realize the cemetery they pass on their way to the beach is a collection of seven cemeteries. Built over the span of nearly two centuries, four are city-owned, and three are private; known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries, they’re rich in history, and a magnet for photographers and artists during the spring wildflower bloom.

Only some of the cemeteries allow flowers to flourish, but where they do, Coreopsis tinctoria runs rampant, mixing primarily with firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) and lazy daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis).

Given the cemeteries’ location, it can be hard to photograph the flowers without including the surrounding homes, tire shops, fast food restaurants, and skateboarding teenagers, but every year I enjoy giving it a try.

One of my favorite images from this spring made use of elevation differences between the sidewalks and the burial plots to allow framing the Coreopsis against the sky.

On a cloudy, gray day, the contrast between the flowers and some of the older graves pleased me.

Visible graves at some of the cemeteries represent only the most recent layer of burials. Stones occasionally were lost during three grade raisings, so plots were resold and new graves placed above the old. Occasionally, only the top of a gravestone is visible, while the rest of the structure remains buried.

Not a fire hydrant, but a finial belonging to a buried marker

Unfortunately, vandalism isn’t unknown. In November of last year, many historic stones were broken and otherwise damaged. The perpetrator was caught, and some markers have been repaired, but many history lovers still grieve the losses. Here, a stone knocked from its base leans against a tree.

In some cases, nature seems to be consoling the broken markers.

While my favorite angels weren’t significantly damaged, they now stand closer to one another.

Unwilling to close the cemeteries to the public, the city did install new fencing and lighting. There are rumors that concerned citizens occasionally patrol the property as unofficial guards.

 

A different and more pleasant kind of history abounds in the cemeteries. Here, the Willis family mausoleum in the Episcopal cemetery remains stately and attractive.  Peter James Willis, born in Maryland in 1815, moved to Texas and established a dry goods store at Washington-on-the-Brazos; eventually,  P. J. Willis and Brother became one of the largest mercantile establishments west of the Mississippi.

A daughter, Magnolia, married George Sealy, one of her father’s business associates, on May 12, 1875; Galveston’s John Sealy Hospital is perhaps the best-known reminder of the family’s influence.

Their luxurious home, Open Gates, became a center of Galveston business and social life. Magnolia engaged the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to build the mansion, thought to be the only building in the South designed by Stanford White, and the home’s elaborate carriage house was designed by preeminent Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton.

As you’d expect, the mausoleum is equally tasteful. The lock on the doors isn’t to keep members of the Willis family from leaving, but to prevent passers-by from spending the night there.

Galveston’s ethnic heritage is rich and complex. Italians, Germans, English, Swedish, and Dutch share space in the cemeteries. Here, a reminder of the Celtic tradition stands tall.

As for the pace of life in a cemetery, it might best be represented by the snails I discovered on several graves. I’d not noticed them in the past, but when I read that snails will climb rocks to obtain minerals needed for shell-building, their presence on stone markers made perfect sense.

Beyond that, it occured to me: even when life moves slowly, it’s still life.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Michaelmas and Its Daisies

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens)

In England, Michaelmas, or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, traditionally is celebrated on September 29. Long associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days, it is one of four ‘Quarter Days’ tied to solstice or equinox: Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25).

Although associated with religious festivals, Quarter Days also served a secular purpose; in the past, Quarter Days marked a time to hire servants, pay rents, or begin leases. Traditionally, Michaelmas also marked the end of harvest: the conclusion of summer’s productivity and the beginning of the new agricultural cycle.

As the turn toward winter began, various late-blooming asters became associated with the celebration of St. Michael. Just as the saint was considered a protector against darkness and evil, the so-called Michaelmas daisy was considered a token of resistance to the advancing gloom of autumn and winter.

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

Today, an assortment of asters have come to be considered Michaelmas daisies, and most belong the genus Symphyotrichum. Generally tall, clump-forming, and autumn-blooming, they can be abundant in North American marshes and fields.

Perennial salt marsh aster (Symphyotrichum tenuifolium)

Ancient traditions associated with the feast of St. Michael include feasting on a goose that had been fed on the stubble of the fields; baking breads or cakes with grain from the last harvest; and making dolls from the last of the corn shocks. Today, Michaelmas daisies still are exchanged or gathered to decorate tables, and verses such as this, from Malcolm Guite, are shared:

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,
And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.
He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear
To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

 

Comments always are welcome.