Saint Michael’s Day: Legends & Traditions

Saint Michael’s Day or Michaelmas is one of the four Christian feast days coinciding with the solstices and equinoxes. Together with March 25 (Annunciation – spring equinox), June 24 (Nativity of St John the Baptist – Midsummer – summer solstice), and December 25 (Nativity of Jesus Christ – winter solstice), September 29 represents a moment of transition in the cosmic cycle—namely the fall equinox/end of summer—and like its counterparts is marked by the kind of festivity and ritual observed for millennia as one period ends and the next begins.

In Italy, the idiom fare San Michele is synonymous with ‘moving day’. In the mezzadria era, contracts between farm laborers and landowners expired on September 29, and thus this was a day on which folks loaded down horse-drawn carts with their personal effects and moved out. A related saying, San Michele ribalto (meaning  ‘overturned’ or ‘capsized’) describes any chaotic or disorderly situation or unexpected turn of events. This expression is linked to a tale of one such peasant family, for whom moving day ended disastrously: an overturned cart, their belongings scattered and broken. The expression fare San Martino has a similar meaning, as November 11, the feast of Saint Martin, also saw the conclusion of seasonal farm work and the departure of laborers and their families.

In terms of food traditions, both Michael’s and Martin’s feast days are associated with the harvest, with San Michele marking the beginning and San Martino the close (with much depending on geography, of course).  In Emilia-Romagna, particularly in and near Ravenna, today local bakeries will be selling a cake called il dolce di san michele. Made with honey and a variety of nuts, the cake recalls, in its various shades of yellow, both the colors of the approaching autumnal season and a nursery rhyme about Michael’s colorful rooster, whom the saint enticed to crow by feeding him milk and honey.

A significant figure in Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition and belief, Archangel Michael is considered a powerful protector and warrior against evil, given his role in defeating Satan in the war in heaven. In some traditions, September 29 is known as the day Satan was expelled from Heaven. Falling to earth, he landed on a blackberry bush, cursing and spitting upon the plant, and giving rise to a popular belief that Saint Michael’s Day, or Devil Spits Day as its also known, is the last day one should pick blackberries. Along with a fattened goose, Michaelmas dumplings served with blackberries and cream are among the dishes served on this day, in Britain especially.

(Image credit: L’alba di San Martino by Roberto Viesi)