Michaelmas is a shortened form of “Michael’s Mass” (just like Christmas is a shortened form of Christ’s Mass). It is also known as the feast day of Holy (or “St.”) Michael and All Angels.
Celebrated similarly to Thanksgiving, Michaelmas conjures images of cool fall days, abundant harvests, and feasting. Festivities focus on the defeat of sin and Satan, often symbolized by dragons.
At the heart of Michaelmas is the recognition of the reality and presence of angelic beings, the Heavenly Host, and their participation and ultimate victory in the war against darkness.
In the Western liturgical traditions, it is celebrated on the 29th of September. It is the feast day for Michael and all the Archangels. And, as Archangel Michael is prominently featured in Scripture for his military might, he “headlines” the feast day.
Great question! The feast of St. Michael and All Angels came from the dedication of a church (a basilica near Rome) to St. Michael in the 5th century.
According to the old Prayer Book Dictionary (1912, edited by Harford, Stevenson, and Tyrer, p. 347):
Dedications of churches to St. Michael were common from the time of Constantine onwards; and the various [festovals] no doubt commemorate in this case such dedications. This is the case with the [festival] of Sept. 29…, which is noted…as the dedication of a church of the Holy Angel in the Via Salaria, six miles from Rome, in the 5th cent. The [festival] spread in the West, and in England King Ethelred, a.d. 1014, commanded its observance with vigil and three days’ preparatory fast; the Council of Mainz (can. 36), a.d. 813, also ordered its observance (“dedicatio S. Michaelis”).
The answer varies! In our family, it’s a much-anticipated day of feasting and celebration.
We set a fancy table, invite friends (they must be game for activities and silliness- no duffers allowed), roast a dragon, and engage in feats of skill and strength (archery and jousting).
Many things are considered traditional for celebration including roasting carrots, polishing off the blackberry harvest (since, according to legend, Satan landed in a blackberry patch and cursed it after being kicked out of heaven), and baking special breads.
Leading up to the day, we read stories about knights and dragons in addition to the BCP readings, reminding each other and ourselves that Satan and sin have been defeated in Christ.
It’s a day of considering the reality of spiritual warfare in a world driven largely by rationalism. My children are delighted to remember that angels and archangels are on “our side” and that their angels are always before the Father.
There is a wonder in it for adults, too, that we are allowed to believe in angels without being sentimental or sappy. Yes, they are real. Yes, they are near. Yes, they fight with us.
The following Sunday, the words of the liturgy take on new meaning for me:
“Creator …of all that is, visible and invisible.”
“Joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven as they forever sing this hymn: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
From the ACNA BCP 2019 (also the same in the 1979 BCP):
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
You might also be interested in checking out the Church of England’s liturgy for Michael and All Angels.
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