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An Exploration of Michaelmas

Traditionally, the celebration of Michaelmas takes place towards the end of September. This time marks the end of the warm summer months when we have enjoyed an expansive mood. After the visual splendor of summer with its lush, green growth, we transition to a different mood. Here, where we live, the autumn brings golden days that hint at the dwindling of the daylight. The clear, crisp days bring a new vigor that allows us to contract into ourselves in preparation for the inwardness of winter. The days of this autumnal contraction bring us comfort in such simple pleasures as enjoying the last fruits of summer – picking apples, making a harvest soup, and joining together with family and friends in a way that feels more contained than in the summer. As our thoughts turn to the winter ahead, we also prepare for the spring: we plant daffodil bulbs in the still soft ground, knowing that there they will transform, through the mysterious working of the winter earth which holds the warmth of summer, into little suns that will rise triumphant in the spring.

All cultures around the world have traditions that celebrate or recognize the turning of the seasons. These traditions, some light-hearted, some serious, reflect the deeper meaning not only of the seasons but also how their movement is connected to the subtle inner life of individuals. If we take time to pause and sense it, we can find transformation both in the outer world and within ourselves. The wisdom of both of these transformations lives in the seasonal traditions.

Michaelmas, celebrated traditionally in autumn, is named for Michael, a powerful angelic figure in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic tradition. Michael is the guardian of the months at this time of year as we move toward the winter.  While Michaelmas is considered a holiday in the Christian calendar in churches that still mark seasonal celebrations, it is not widely known. Its roots go farther back to pre-Christian, Celtic times.  This more ancient tradition holds the meaning of the festival, which was named for Archangel Michael, who is often pictured holding a sword at the throat of a dragon.  The symbolism of this picture is important: Michael is subduing the dragon, not slaying it, as is often assumed. Ultimately, Michaelmas heralds the conscious courage it takes to learn to know and master ourselves.

The ancient image of the dragon, while powerful, did not always have a negative meaning but rather a positive one. The red dragon still flies on the flag of Wales, remembering the ancient royal family there. Legend tells us that in Cornwall, Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, took his name after he saw a comet shaped like a dragon blaze across the sky. In the east, the dragon symbolized the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water from which we are all made. In both Eastern and Celtic cultures, the dragon kept the channels of life open under the ground allowing water to flow and the breath of the earth to circulate.

The importance of balancing the four elements in our lives is present in these ancient beliefs. Without balance, our tendency to one extreme or another is not only possible but probable. The image of Michael subduing the dragon pictures for us the ability to keep elemental forces in balance. However, to do this we must look at ourselves, and this takes courage. Also, we must find the courage to subdue our own doubt and fear of what is to come, to put aside or accept uncertainty and trust in our own capacities to keep our balance while meeting what comes to us. The more Dionysian, freedom-loving, sunlight-embracing joy of summer is passing. In order to enter into winter in such a way that we are prepared to find our own inner sun, we must take hold of ourselves in a new and powerful way.

At our school we bring these themes of Michaelmas into a lively celebration for the students in grades 1 -12.  All around the playground area and into the woods, age-appropriate experiences call the students to test their strength and courage, to try new things, and to play and work together to find new solutions. Most importantly, the students find joy in these activities, and that is a joy to behold!  In the Children’s Garden, our focus is on activity:  gathering the harvest, such as the apples, and through the work of our hands washing, polishing, and transforming them into something tasty like applesauce or apple cake.  The warmth of the earth and air ripens the fruit and joined with the warming work of our hands, warms our hearts.

As we prepare to meet a future we cannot entirely see, we can remember the daffodils that go into the ground at this time of year to arise later entirely transformed. So it is with us, what is planted now in our own lives, will come back to us richer and fuller in the years to come.

Adapted by the Festivals Committee from an article by former WWS faculty member, Linda Sawers.