So, the saying goes: ‘Michaelmas chickens and parsons’ daughters never come to good’. But, what on earth does it mean?
Today is Michaelmas, the feast day of St Michael and one of four days on which quarterly rents used to be paid. The tradition of serving goose for dinner on this day is thought to have stemmed from the practice of giving your landlord such a bird as a gift:
And when the tenants come to pay their quarter’s rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose,
And somewhat else at New-year’s tide, for fear their lease fly loose.
George Gascoigne, The Posies of George Gascoigne (1757)
It was also thought that eating goose on Michaelmas Day would bring financial prosperity in the year to come. Much of September’s ‘weather legend’ relates to Michaelmas and it is generally said that good weather on this day promises a fine Christmas but – as always – some proverbs suggest the opposite: ‘A dark Michaelmas, a light Christmas’.
Over the years, other attractions and festivities attached themselves to the Michaelmas gatherings and some of them have developed into fairs which still take place in various parts of the UK in late September or early October. Chipping Norton in Gloucestershire holds its mop fair in September; King’s Norton in Birmingham holds a mop fair on the first Monday in October and these remain popular, even though their original purpose has largely been lost. Marlborough – just down the road from our offices here in Wiltshire – holds a ‘Little Mop’ fair on the Saturday before 11 October and a ‘Big Mop’ fair on the Saturday after! The second fair is also known as a runaway fair and comes from the tradition that those who had been hired at the first hiring fair could ‘run away’ if they found their master too hard and try to be hired by someone else.