21-24 SEPTEMBER – 30 OCTOBER
Harvestide (also known as the Autumn Equinox, the Feast of Avalon or the more recently dubbed Mabon, the Witch’s Thanksgiving) takes place when the harvest is winding down. The fields are nearly empty, because the crops have been plucked and stored for the coming winter. The seasons are dramatically changing, as the leaves turn to brilliant oranges, reds and yellows, the tang of frost enters the air, and animals start to migrate. There is a sense of hurrying in the air for humans and animals alike — a time to gather root vegetables, dry herbs, collect seeds and seed pods for your storehouse, stack the woodpile and make the house ready for the snows and winter gales that are soon to arrive. It was also a time for making wine. Harvestide falls on the Autumn Equinox, which means “equal night” — the time when there is an equal amount of day and night, a balance between light and dark. People came together to celebrate the gifts of the earth, but also to accept that the crops were brown and going dormant. Warmth was behind them; cold lay ahead. The Sun’s strength diminishes, until the moment of Winter Solstice in December when the Sun grows stronger and the days once again become longer than the nights.
The Anglo-Saxons called it Haefest monath (Harvest month) or Gerst monath (Barley month). Their harvested barley was made into alcoholic barley brew. In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest was called the Maiden, and had to be cut by the youngest female in attendance. The Druids called this celebration Mea’n Fo’mhair, and honoured the The Green Man, the God of the Forest, by offering libations (ciders, wines, herbs) to trees. Memory of this remained in medieval England where the Harvest Lord (Green Man) was slain at harvest and his seeds planted back into the Earth later as part of nature’s life cycle. The Harvest Lord was often symbolised by a straw man, whose sacrificial body was burned and its ashes scattered upon the earth. The Harvest Queen, or Kern Baby, was made from the last sheaf of the harvest and bundled by the reapers who proclaimed, “We have the Kern!” The sheaf was dressed in a white frock decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole (a phallic fertility symbol). The Harvest Lord could also be symbolised by tying together the stalks of gourds and melons.
During the Middle Ages, European farmers made scarecrows which they believed had special powers. In Germany, wooden witches were placed in the fields at the end of winter. The farmers believed that witches would draw the evil spirit of winter into their bodies so spring could come. In Medieval England scarecrows were live boys aged nine and above called bird scarers or bird shooers. They patrolled wheat fields carrying bags of stones. If crows or starlings landed in the fields they would chase them off by waving their arms and throwing the stones. After the population was decimated in the Great Plague, landowners stuffed sacks with straw, carved faces in turnips or gourds, and made scarecrows that stood against poles.
This mid-harvest festival held that the Lord (Sun) and Lady (Moon) of the Greenwood were perfectly equal in power. It was symbolised by vines, harvest garlands, coloured leaves, nuts, acorns, berries, cider apples, perry pears, fall fruits, corn sheaves, pumpkins, squash, gourds, grains, nut breads, vegetables, hips ‘n haws, typically spilling out of a Horn of Plenty (cornucopia). The favoured drink at this time was hot apple cider. You can make your own cider by juicing apples or buying organic scrumpy, and simmering the juice in a pot along with a cinnamon stick, dash of nutmeg and allspice, and an orange stuck with whole cloves. October 1 was the traditional date on which the English pudding season started. These were filled with steak, leaks, mushrooms, spices and some were cooked for as long as sixteen hours.
This time is also associated with hunting and the Horned God. Pheasants, deer, rabbits and other animals were killed during the autumn in olden times. The deer (stag) in particular is highly symbolic, and takes on many aspects of the God during the harvest season. The Horned God, in his many incarnations, often appears wearing a headdress of antlers, said to represent the crescent moon. The image of a stag with a full moon between his antlers represents both the male (the antlers) and the female (the moon) aspects of the Divine. The traditional Horn Dance performed at medieval fairs around this time involved six men holding masks on sticks which had long reindeer horns attached to them.
If the October moon comes without frost,
expect no frost till the moon of November.
Punky Night falls on the last Thursday in October and is a Somerset tradition. In medieval times, all the men of Hinto St George went off to a fair. When they failed to return that evening, the women went looking for them by the light of punkies. Punky is another name for a pumpkin which has been hollowed out and has a candle standing inside it. Traditionally on this night, children in the South of England would carve their Punkies into Jack O’Lanterns. Once carved the children would go out in groups and march through the streets, singing traditional ‘Punky’ songs, calling in at friendly houses and competing for best lantern with rival groups they meet. The streets would be lit with the light of the Punkies.
HOLY ROOD DAY
Nut season was so important in the British Isles that September 14 was declared a pupil-free day so that schoolchildren could forage in the woods for hazelnuts, walnuts, acorns and conkers. Hazelnuts ripen in the hedges, and they have long been connected to folklore and legends connected to wisdom and protection. They are often found near sacred wells and magical springs. September 21 is sometimes called the Devil’s Nutting Day — a day on which mortals must never gather nuts. In some areas of Britain, nuts were not to be picked on Sundays, either.
ST LUKE’S DAY
On September 18, St Luke’s day often occurred at the centre of a spell of particularly fine weather known as St Luke’s Little Summer. This was traditionally a day when girls could have some insight into their future marriage prospects. Before going to bed they put on their faces a mixture of spices, honey and vinegar, and once in bed they said the following rhyme: “St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me / In dreams let me my true love see”.
The Church’s Michaelmas celebrations often included older aspects of pagan harvest customs, such as the weaving of corn dolls from the last sheaves of grain. During the Middle Ages, customs included the preparation of a meal of goose which had been fed on the stubble of the fields following the harvest (called a stubble-goose), to bring good luck for the rest of the year. There was also a tradition of preparing special larger-than-usual unleavened loaves of bread, and St. Michael’s bannocks (oatcake). By Michaelmas, the harvest was typically complete, and the next year’s farming cycle would begin as landowners saw reeves elected from among the peasants for the following year to watch over the work and collect rents. This was also the time of year when accounts were balanced up, annual dues paid to local guilds, and new leases taken for the following year.
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.
In English folklore, the devil stamps or spits on bramble bushes — therefore one must not pick blackberries after Michaelmas. The reason for this belief has ancient origins. It was said that the devil was kicked out of heaven on St Michael’s Feast Day, but as he fell from the skies, he landed in the blackberries. He cursed the fruit of that prickly plant, scorching them with his fiery breath, stamping on them, spitting on them and generally making them unsuitable for human consumption. Legend suggests he renews his curse annually on Michaelmas Day and therefore it is very unlucky to gather blackberries after this date. In Ireland, finding a ring hidden in a Michaelmas pie meant that one would soon be married. There does not seem to be any remaining evidence of what a Michaelmas pie actually contained, but as blackberries are abundant at this time of year, many modern versions use a blackberry pie recipe. For extra country magic, you can mark the crust with a solar cross.
Excerpt from Tales of Wych Elm Gate
September days were busy from sun-up to sun-down, for it was custom for all harvesting to be finished before Michaelmas. There were nuts to gather in the Friendly Woods, cloudberries and blackcurrants to pick, wood to be cut, hay to be stacked, jams to be boiled and vegetables to be pickled. Big sister Polly sat at the kitchen table, sleeves rolled up to her elbows and golden-blonde hair twisted in an elegant knot behind her head, tying bunches of herbs with string to hang upside-down to be dried. Her slim white hands were fragrant with crushed rosemary, bay leaves and hyssop. Behind her, Mary sweated over enormous pots of jam, always stirring clockwise for she was a superstitious soul. Bess ran up and down the cellar steps, lining the shelves with endless crocks of mustards, jellies and preserves.
The cellar was low-roofed but very large. It literally groaned under the weight of good things to eat: sweet-pickled hams and garlic bunches hanging from hooks, great cheese wheels and ceramic pots of honey, and poundcakes wrapped in brown paper and string. There were bottles of honey mead, elderberry syrup and cowslip wine, pats of butter wrapped in dock leaves, glazed earthenware milk crocks, and countless empty wooden barrels along the back wall, waiting for the apple pickers to arrive. The cellar was a spicy Aladdin’s Cave, but there were sticky cobwebs in the shadowy eaves and the echo of dripping spring water could be heard in a dank corner.
When Bess ventured down with a candle, the light flickered against the rammed earth walls in a haunting way. She always ran back up the steps as fast as she could to the cheerful, noisy warmth of the kitchen above, feeling pursued by a thousand ancestral ghosts. It was one thing to daydream at school about little servant girls buried in mildewy dungeon cellars, but it was quite another to walk down the creaking steps after dark carrying a dim lantern, listening to the queer sounds of the old farmhouse groaning and settling overhead.
An icy-cold wind whipped over the castle ruins, down the mountain and through the orchards, but Bess remained stock-still in the gathering darkness, entranced by the full yellow Harvest Moon rising behind the firs. Two miles away, the church bell tolled to announce winter curfew, echoing through the valley and over the Friendly Woods. A barn owl glided silently over the stables in response, and frogs sang sweetly in the marshes around Willcott’s Mill. The ivy-covered farmhouse with its thatched roof and privet hedge lay silhouetted against the starry sky; lamplight glinted from its square windows like a dollhouse. It’s Michaelmas Eve, the day the devil was thrown out of heaven and fell to earth in a blackberry bush, thought Bess. The hairs rose on the back of her neck, and she whipped around to peer at the brambly hedgerows. Maybe he’s there now, looking at me with his bloodshot eyes…
The kitchen door banged open and Polly’s voice cut through the crystal-cold night air. “What in mercy’s name are you doing out there in the dark, Bess Asheton? The goose is getting cold!” Trust Polly to ruin somebody’s deliciously scary moment.
Inside, the great kitchen was alive with colour and laughter. Will was tossing hazelnuts into the air and catching them between his teeth, Mary was taking an oversized loaf of St. Michael’s Bannock out of the oven, and Father was carving great tender slabs of goose breast with sage-and-onion stuffing onto everyone’s plates. Mother always bought one of Farmer Trickett’s ‘stubble-geese’ to roast for Michaelmas, for it was said to bring good luck for the rest of the year.
“‘He who eats goose on Michaelmas day shan’t money lack or debts to pay’,” quoted Mary, lifting the Michaelmas pie out of the oven. They’d baked it using the plumpest Norfolk Beefing apples they could find, and now it sat, bubbling away in a pie dish so large it might have belonged to Jack-and-the-Beanstalk’s giant.
They had quite a feast – plates heaped with roast goose and hot potatoes, bread-and-dripping, and garlic mustard that Bess had picked in the lane – but it was a wonder that anybody consumed anything at all, they all chattered so much. The kettle sang and the fire crackled and spat, Father roared with laughter and even Clementine yowled for the wishbone. Mother told Will not to shovel his food, Will told Polly her petticoats were hanging out the back (they weren’t), Polly told Bess to stop daydreaming over the moon outside the window and pass the gravy, and Mary Brook – who normally sat out the back because she was the ‘help’ – was invited to pull up a chair and join them for Michaelmas pie.
“Merry Michaelmas Day,” said Father, and they toasted each other with mugs of homemade mead.
“It were called Hipping Day when I was a lass,” said Mary, sinking a great pewter knife into the pie, “And all the bairns ran about the gardens collecting rosehips.”
They were silent for a moment as the pie’s soft apple chunks, blackberry juice and ground cloves melted in their mouths. Then Polly yelped and gagged and something golden clattered – ching! – on the polished stone floor. Bess gazed in wonder as her sister reached down and held it up.
“A gold ring in my pie,” she cried, and they all gaped in surprise.
“I threw it in!” said Mary, thumping the table with glee. “The person who finds the ring in the Michaelmas pie is soon to be married.”