How do you pronounce ‘Michaelmas’? Do you call it ‘Michael-mas’ or ‘Mickle-mas’? And do you reckon that St. Michael’s Day is 29 September, or do you favour 10 October?
St. Michael is regarded as a source of protection against the darkness of the winter nights, when our ancestors believed it was easier for evil spirits to venture out in quest of victims. Well, I write that our ancestors believed that ‘the forces of darkness’ lurked in the deep shadows of a winter evening: but it is we who speak of ‘the forces of darkness’; and do you know anyone who is afraid of the light? He … St. Michael … is thought to have been one of the Archangels who fought against Satan and his evil cohorts prior to Satan’s banishment from Heaven; and he is seen as continuing the fight to this day. The reason for there being a choice of dates for St. Michael’s Day lies in a decision, taken more than 250 years ago, to change the reckoning of dates in the British Isles from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, improved methods of calculating the passage of time having led to the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in continental Europe. To bring England and Scotland into line with the European mainland, Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752; so any prior engagements for 29 September 1752 (Julian Calendar) were fulfilled on 10 October 1752 (Gregorian Calendar), meaning that St. Michael’s Day was celebrated in some areas on one date but on the other date in other areas.
Whatever, St. Michael’s Day was regarded as the final day for harvesting, the precursor of our Harvest Thanksgiving services in the Protestant Church; and the late-blooming Aster novi-belgii acquired the common name Michaelmas Daisy because it adds colour and warmth to the dying Summer garden, the name conferred in recognition of the role of St. Michael in fighting the forces of darkness and the daisy’s fight against the gloom of Autumn. “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,” according to an old poem … and I should add that the Feast of St. Simon and Jude is 28 October.
It used to be said that Michaelmas Daisies came into flower on 29 September, but it is generally held nowadays that they will start flowering in August and, with any luck, will still have blooms by the end of October, as the old rhyme claims. They are found throughout the United Kingdom and it is tempting to suppose that they are native to these islands. Far from it; as their botanical name suggests, they are the members of the Aster family which came originally from novi-belgii … New Belgium … and people who remember the song Istanbul, not Constantinople may remember the line, “Even old New York was once New Amsterdam,” (or New Belgium) for, yes, the plant comes originally from the north-eastern seaboard of the United States. They grow best in full sun in good garden soil, though they tolerate sandy and clay soils that are difficult for other plants. They should be split up every third year; and fertilising the soil around them will result in strong growth. The stems grow to around 2½ feet in height (say 80cm in new money) and the lilac flowers with bright yellow centres provide late-flying butterflies with a good source of nectar. Michaelmas Daisies are excellent in garden borders and mass plantings and make good cut flowers.
And how should the name be pronounced? Either way is acceptable, though I suspect that older people are more likely to say ‘Mickle-mas’ and younger ones ‘Michael-mas.’
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society