Photograph by Alex Treadway, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Gather ye blackberries while ye may
Photograph by Alex Treadway, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Michaelmas: The Day the Devil Spit on Your Blackberries

It’s time to eat as many blackberries as you can find and stuff in a pie. After September 29, those celebrating the feast of Michaelmas warn you not to eat them.

On the list of forgotten holidays, Michaelmas falls somewhere below Arbor Day and the winter solstice. But just as American Popemania is rousing hoardes of non-Catholics, Michaelmas affects the secular world. A religious holiday celebrated by some Christian churches, it is a centuries-old event with a peculiar food history.

In medieval England, farmers used Michaelmas as a way to delineate the changing of the seasons—made sense, as it fell around the change of seasons. Michaelmas was a time to finish the reaping and start preparing for winter.

But the rule against eating blackberries after September 29 comes not from seasonality but from the story of the Archangel Michael, for whom the day is named. Michael, the greatest of all angels, defeated the angel Lucifer in a huge battle and banished him from heaven, the lore goes. At that point Lucifer became the devil. When Lucifer bounced onto the floor of hell, he landed in a thorny blackberry bush. (Naturally when you land in hell, you land end-first in a bunch of thorns.) This made him so mad that he spit on the bush and cursed its fruit.

So it is ill advised to eat blackberries after Michaelmas, a date better known in the United States as National Poisoned Blackberry Day. No word on why it’s OK to eat the fruit the rest of the year, after Satan stamped, spit, breathed fire, and possibly urinated on it. I’ll stick with fall fruits.

And as blackberries are not exactly in their prime in September, the best way to eat whatever dregs are left over is baking them in a pie. The Michaelmas Blackberry Pie tradition was born, and no one knows when. There are other Michaelmas feast traditions—roast goose and St. Michael bread, which is to be made by the oldest daughter without metal implements, but no one knows why, possibly having something to do with a sword. And don’t look for these stories in the Bible—they are all folklore, passed down the generations.

Michaelmas is still used to mark the beginning of school and legal calendars in the United Kingdom, and its lasting cultural effect is seen in the United States Supreme Court, which continues to start its term on the first Monday in October (usually the first Monday following Michaelmas).

My English relatives are crazy for the day, and revere it as a nice excuse for a feast before Christmas in a place where there is no American Thanksgiving in Novermber. But doubling up on holidays shouldn’t deter Americans either. So Happy Michaelmas, and eat up your blackberries before the devil spits on them.