How does the Michaelmas Daisy get its name?
Michaelmas daisies are beloved for their cheery late season blooms; a last hurrah before the cold, dark winter months arrive. But why are these asters (and other members of the Asteraceae family) commonly known as Michaelmas daisies?
Since the 5th Century, Michael’s Day or the Feast of St Michael the Archangel has been held on September 29th in the Western Christian calendar. The day honours Archangel Michael’s defeat over Satan and his evil angels, sending them to the depth of hell. Michael’s mass would be routinely celebrated at this time leading to the common shortening of Michaelmas.
In the northern hemisphere, Michael’s Day falls close to the equinox when the days start to become shorter; darker nights and colder days follow as winter beckons. The celebrations for Michaelmas therefore became associated with encouraging protection during these dark winter months.
In medieval England, Michaelmas marked the beginning of autumn and the end of the productive harvest season. It was associated with a great religious feast, with many popular traditions stemming back to this time. It was the time that accounts were finalised, rents were due, servants were hired and magistrates were elected. To this day, the Lord Mayor of London is still elected on Michaelmas Day. The Inns of Court of the English Bar still have a Michaelmas term as one of their dining terms. And while most courts in the US sit all year round, the US Supreme Court operates on an annual term that closely mirrors the English custom commencing on the first Monday of each October.
The Michaelmas daisy was thus named as there were relatively few flowers left blooming as autumn progressed. The daisy was seen as fighting off the advancing dark winter days just as St Michael defeated darkness and evil. A traditional rhyme captures this sentiment:
“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.”
The term ‘daisy’ is a derivative of the Old English for ‘day’s eye’. An apt description as the petals of the daisy open at dawn and close at dusk. In flower folklore, giving someone a Michaelmas daisy is said to symbolise a departure or farewell; a reference, perhaps, to Michaelmas Day being a farewell to the productive year.