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Michaelmas Traditions

By rob taylor  |  Posted: October 07, 2010

Fattening the geese.

Fattening the geese.

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IN days gone by, Michaelmas, or the feast of St. Michael and all Angels, was an important date in the calendar. The feast day was one of four traditional Quarter Days celebrated each year, all falling on religious festivals. These were: Lady Day (25th March), Midsummer or St John’s Day, Michaelmas (29th September) and Christmas (25th December).

These dates are the ones we use today. But, until the mid eighteenth century, Britain used the old Julian calendar, first introduced by Julius Caesar. Over the centuries, Britain became seriously out of step with the Gregorian calendar, used by the rest of Europe. Consequently, in September 1752, when the change to the new calendar occurred, twelve days were simply wiped out. Tough luck if one of them was your birthday! More to the point, the New Year now started on January 1st, instead of 25th March as it had for centuries. So, all the old holidays and festivals were re-assigned new dates, confusing everyone.

After the calendar change, Michaelmas moved to 29th September. But, for many folk, especially the older ones, it would always be 10th October. For decades, many people celebrated the key festivals on their old dates. And, needing little excuse for a good time, many folk celebrated both the old and new dates! In much earlier times, the Quarter Days corresponded with the celebrations held at the four equinoxes, and many of the old pagan beliefs lingered, long after the festivals were adopted by the Church. By the Autumn equinox, the harvest would usually be complete, the productive season at an end and a new farming cycle beginning.

Clearly marking the changing seasons, the Quarter Days honoured endings and new beginnings. Traditionally, they became the days on which servants and other workers were hired, when land was exchanged, when rents or leases were due, and debts settled. Consequently, Michaelmas hiring fairs were held at the end of September or beginning of October.

Michaelmas was also the customary time for electing magistrates, and marked the beginning of legal and university terms.

Traditionally, the Archangel Michael was held to be a warrior saint and protector against darkness and evil. According to folk belief, in common with Saint George, he wasn’t averse to slaying a few dragons. In the Bible, he fought against Satan and his fallen angels. Another of his roles was to rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of enemies, especially at the hour of death. Hence, as the autumn nights grew longer, many Michaelmas customs were about conquering the forces of evil. With a dark winter lying ahead, people believed evil spirits were stronger in the dark, so they needed extra protection to see them through until spring.

Superstitions and charms affording protection, foretelling happiness, good fortune, or the weather, were prevalent. Old Michaelmas Day was said to be the last day that blackberries should be picked as it was on this day that the Devil was kicked out of Heaven. On his way down, Old Nick is said to have landed on a blackberry bush, subsequently cursing the prickly berries, scorching them with his fiery breath, stamping and spitting on them. In other legends, he urinates on them! In any event, the old saying rings true as blackberries are way past their best by October.

Another old rhyme attempts to forecast the unpredictable British weather: “If ducks do slide at Michaelmas, At Christmas they will swim; If ducks do swim at Michaelmas At Christmas they will slide.” In other words, an early freeze means a mild and wet Christmas, and vice versa! As flowering plants die down in Autumn, one of the few flowers left around at this time of year is the Michaelmas daisy. Hence this rhyme: “The Michaelmas daisies, among dead weeds, Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds ...” As befitting his warrior status, Michael was also the patron saint of horses and horsemen, so horse sales and fairs, and horse racing were also common features of Michaelmas celebrations.

It was also the traditional season for ploughing matches with heavy horses.

In British folk culture, the creature most closely associated with Michaelmas, is the goose. September, it was said, was the month, “when by custom, geese are ordained to bleed at St Michael’s shrine”. Another saying proclaimed: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year.” “Darlaston Mon” In those days, thousands of plump geese were “sacrificed” and happily devoured at Michaelmas.

And, if the act guaranteed enough cash to last out the year, even better! And, of course, the feathers were used to make quills and for stuffing pillows, quilts and mattresses. The wings were also used as dusters. The grease from the cooked bird was carefully strained and kept for rubbing on bad chests. In the Black Country, Darlaston folk were nicknamed, “geese”, apparently after their passion for eating roast goose. The goose, itself, was known as a “Darlaston mon”! After harvest time, it was the custom to turn geese out to graze on the stubble fields, to fatten them for Christmas. And, with Michaelmas also being the time when rents and other debts were due, people often settled up by giving their landlords geese instead of cash! Another reason for eating geese at Michaelmas is said to come from Tudor times. Apparently, when Queen Elizabeth the First heard of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, she was eating goose at the time. Overjoyed, she vowed to eat goose every Michaelmas.

Over time, some of the old Michaelmas customs surrounding geese moved to Christmas.

Hence, in pre-Turkey days, the goose became the traditional Christmas dinner in Britain.

Likewise, the custom of two people snapping the Michaelmas goose’s wishbone, while making a secret wish, was also transferred to Christmas.

At one time, people also ate a Michaelmas Pie which had a ring baked inside it. Whoever found the ring on their plate was guaranteed good luck, would be engaged by Christmas and married by Easter. This custom also moved to Christmas, with silver coins or rings concealed in Christmas puddings.

Until well into the 20th century, flocks of geese were driven along the old drovers’ routes to great Michaelmas fairs and markets. Before setting out, the geese were driven through tar to harden and protect their feet for the long journey. In those days, cattle were also shod and pigs wore felt socks to protect their feet on the drove. The journey would end at one of the goose fairs, where the geese were sold to be fattened up for Christmas. Some goose fairs still take place in October, around old Michaelmas, namely Nottingham Goose Fair and Tavistock “Goosey Fair”.

Michaelmas fairs were also hiring, or “mop”, fairs, for people looking for work and employers seeking staff. Servants advertised their availability by carrying a mop. Likewise, other workers sported symbols of their trade, such as a shepherd wearing a tuft of wool in his hat, or a farm labourer carrying a scythe.

Little Mops and Big Mops In some areas, there were “Little Mops” and “Big Mops”, the former usually held just before Michaelmas and the latter about a week or two later. The “Little Mop” was first port of call for job applicants. But, if, after the first week of work they weren’t suited to the job, they could try for another at the “Big Mop”.

“Mop” Fairs were common throughout the Midlands, with a notable mop still running at Stratford on Avon each October. In the Black Country, Halesowen had a famous “Mop”, held on the Monday nearest the 10th October, Old Michaelmas Day. The fair ended in 1901, but was still being recalled 25 years later by an anonymous writer...

“the farms and the nailshops were deserted ...” Folk travelled from far and wide to seek or offer work and to enjoy the proceedings: “The chief happening of the day, however, was the roasting of the ox in the street ...Very soon the air was filled with a delicious savour, and by the time the ox was roasted to an appetising brown, a queue of moist-mouthed individuals had formed with dishes to obtain a portion of the beast ...” Once hired, and sated with roast beef, fair goers could really let their hair down. The writer recalls: “ ...no-one restrained themselves, and the alehouses were generally well patronised by both sexes.” In fact, the writer reports that a local doctor was always on hand for: “... the extra work which would result from the excessive eating or drinking, or both, of the residents ... the revelry continued without cessation throughout the night ...it was impossible to sleep if anyone desired, for the streets resounded with the strains of concertinas and the laughter of the visitors ...”

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