What is Michaelmas?
According to tradition, Michaelmas is celebrated each year on September 29th. I hope it was a good day for you and yours, even if you do not celebrate the holiday. Either way, I find it to be a wonderful theme associated with that holiday tradition; therefore, it can be something interesting to contemplate this time of year.
Many Waldorf schools have a Michaelmas celebration, and usually it entails the appearance of a threatening dragon who is vanquished by a hero who is, in turn, aided by the supernatural help of an archangelic being, Michael.
Let us start by acknowledging the religious foundation. The fact that this celebration has evolved from religious sources can cause concern or even rejection for some. Naturally, I honor every person's religious freedom and do so without any judgment. At the same time, I offer that we can have a new view of such things so that we can be the recipients of the more universal and positive aspects of such traditions without the dogma and other negative aspects.
In essence, I suggest that it might be possible to keep the baby of Michaelmas and throw out the bath water of religion, dogma, etc. So, let's consider the universal picture of this holiday and see if we can celebrate it in that sense.
Here is the basic picture:
In the Autumn of each year, the northern hemisphere experiences the shortening of days and the cooling of temperatures. We leave the light-filled summer and move toward the cold, dark winter. As much as we allow ourselves to be connected to these natural rhythms of nature, the more we feel ourselves also experiencing change and transition. A different mood of inner soul occurs.
In the dark and cold, we human beings tend to have more sense of fear, of foreboding. Traditionally, the winter months were the harshest. Food was scarce, illnesses increased, the ability to socialize with friends and family was impacted. It was a more difficult part of the year. It is therefore no coincidence that human beings created holiday celebrations to encourage the human soul.
This darkness and coldness is embodied in the epitome of monstrous terror: the dragon.
In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell said of the monster:
“The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine...The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world—no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions...Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then—more miserably—within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.”
Today, we find many amiable forms of the dragon. And in eastern traditions, there were likewise many benevolent manifestations of dragons. So, we must be clear that the dragon which threatens our safety is the tyrannical, destructive dragon, the killer of livestock and people, burner of land and homes, and hoarder of gold. Gold, of course, is also a symbol of value, of that precious metal that we use, in a traditional sense, as the basis of value exchange. But what does the dragon need of gold? Why does the dragon hoard it in its lairs? The reason for any of this negative behavior is the same. Because the dragon is, as Campbell suggests, the inflated ego. It has more than it needs, and still it wants more. This self-centered desire is the ruin of society. It not only takes for itself; it takes from all others. It does not seek to live in harmony and balance with itself and the world. It wants and takes only for itself.
And all of us must face this dragon, because we all must come to terms with our egos. How can we live in balance? How can we have healthy ego forces to maintain ourselves as we should, to stand up for our own rights, our own feelings, our own opinions, our own choices, etc and do so in a way that does not trample upon those very same rights, feelings, opinions, choices, etc of others? This is the great challenge of our age, the challenge of what some refer to as "I-Thou".
Therefore, the celebration includes the inspiration of a spiritual being: Michael, and archangel. Michael is associated with shooting stars, which have a high content of iron, a metal to balance the sulfurous effects of the dragon's "fire". Michael, holds a sword of light, to inspire us with strength and courage, enabling us to take up the task of facing the dragon.
In some stories and traditions, the dragon is slain. In others, the dragon is tamed. Most Waldorf schools portray the latter. The dragon is then put to work for the good of the community.
So that is the basic picture. There remains much more that could be studied in regards to this tradition and the esoteric symbology within it, but we have enough to understand the archetypal message of the Michaelmas festival.