Near the beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet exults that neighboring Netherfield Hall has been rented at last, and the young man who’s rented it will be moving in at Michaelmas. This is only one of countless references to Michaelmas in 19th century British fiction. But what — and when — is this holiday?
Michaelmas is celebrated on Sept. 29, and its full name is the Feast of Holy Michael and All Angels.
In 19th century England, Michaelmas was an important day in the civic calendar. It was one of four “quarter days” — the other three being Christmas Day, Lady Day (also called Annunciation) on March 25, and Midsummer or the Feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24. Each of these religious feasts, falling as they do on or near the solstices or the equinoxes, were also important civic and legal days when rents were due, accounts were settled, and workers’ contracts were either terminated or renewed.
Michaelmas was an especially busy quarter day because it was the day that laborers received their harvest wages, school and university terms began, and legal court sessions started up again after the summer break. In addition, houses were often rented out or changed owners on Michaelmas — hence Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield on Michaelmas.
In England, then, Michaelmas was primarily a civic holiday, though it still had religious undertones, rather like American Christmas is now.
But who is this Michael for whom Michaelmas was named?
Michael is an angel. He’s mentioned four times in the Bible: twice in the book of Daniel, where he fights for God’s people against a powerful evil spirit; once in the book of Jude, where he’s designated an archangel and is said to have contended with the devil over the body of Moses; and once in the book of Revelation, where he battles a great dragon, who is Satan.
Thus, Christian tradition gives Michael four offices: to fight against Satan; to rescue the souls of the faithful, especially at death; to champion God’s people and to bring souls from earth to judgment. He is usually represented in art wearing full armor with a helmet, sword, and shield, often with a dragon at his feet, pierced by his lance. Sometimes he is depicted carrying a set of scales or with the Book of Life.
And that’s what Michaelmas is: a civic holiday in 19th century Britain, and an ongoing feast of the church to honor the archangel Michael and his angelic kin.