We all no doubt recall the well-known rhyme that helps us to remember the number of days in each month:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
February has twenty eight alone
All the rest have thirty-one
Except in Leap Year, that’s the time
When February’s Days are twenty-nine.
Like many other months in our year September derives its name from the Roman Calendar, it being the seventh month (Septum) of their year which actually began in March. In a purely civic and economic sense this was a time when quarter rents were paid, legal matters dealt with, labourer’s contracts renewed and new labourers hired. The Anglo-Saxons knew it as Hoerfestmonath (Harvest month, see previous post August, the Harvest Month) and with the advent of Christianity as Haligmonath (Holy Month). The most important festivals for this month are the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (8th), Holy Cross or Holy Rood Day (14th), and Michaelmas (29th) all take place in September. Of which the Holy Cross Day was set aside for the Jews to attend Mass in Rome and listen to a Christian sermon. It was discontinued in 1840 by Pope Gregory XVI.
Another old rhyme says:
“Married in September’s glow
Smooth and serene your life will go.”
This was a special time for fairs and feasts of all descriptions. Regular annual festive gatherings throughout the British Isles were named variously as Fairs, Wakes, Carnivals, Feasts, Revels, Mops, Fetes, and Ales. They originally took place in or alongside Churchyards but were banned by church and state in the 14th century. They brought a great deal of revenue to the clergy who continued to host them at different sites in order to take advantage of their financial benefits. Strictly speaking Feasts or rather Feast Days originally took place inside Church grounds and were promoted by the Church elders to celebrate some venerated saint but were perceived by the layman as a propaganda tool of the Old Catholic Church. When these gatherings became ever more boisterous or licentious the Church fathers were more than happy to see them being held outside their own precincts. Usually they remained linked by name to the saint in question, so for example we have St. Barnaby Fair, while others were named after the place (eg: Appleby Fair) or the type of produce likely to be found there ie Strawberry Fair.
One can easily recall the famous English folk lyric re-discovered by the American folk duo Simon & Garfunkel:
“Are you going to Strawberry Fair?
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine”.
Sometimes these would be begun with a procession of local worthies, and there might be contests such as cheese rolling, wrestling, horse or dog racing, bear-baiting etc. Naturally, these events were often accompanied by a lot of drinking, quarrelling and other illegal activities regardless of the rules or regulations that governed them. Strictly speaking Wakes were occasional religious observances, staying awake, torchlight processions through towns, fasting and abstaining from sex to awaken the Spirit. However, these became ever more secular events or became tainted with irreverent, mercantile or hedonistic motivations. Church Ales were instituted by the Protestant Church in order to raise funds in the Spring and Summer months and usually incorporated bring and buy stalls, drinking, dancing and games. Doles, as the name implies, were charitable festival days when the poor were favoured by the rich, and many doles were instituted by charitable worthies in the British Isles where food, drink and clothing was donated to alleviate poverty and squalor in the community.
Most notable fairs or feasts in the British Isles are the Abbots Bromley Horndance in Staffordshire held usually on the first Monday after the 4th of September. It features ten dancers, six of whom are suitably attired with antlers while the other four are dressed as the Fool, Hobbyhorse, an Archer (Robin Hood) and Maid Marian. Accompanied by two musicians they progress around the parish. This spectacle has been dated to the early 13th century and may have Phoenician origins. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Egyptians regularly visited the British Isles to trade, to find sources of precious metals such as tin, lead, copper and gold and some anthropologists suggest a large number of our supposedly home-grown pagan festivals have an Eastern origin. Similarly, the Mummer’s and Miracle plays are based on foreign religious festivities imported into the British Isles. According to Frank Parker the migration occurred sometime around 2,000 BC, soon after the Trojan Wars when the descendants of Gomer of both Greek and Phoenician sailors and traders went in search of metals in the land of the Hyperboreans since they were being invaded by barbarous tribes from the east. In his book, “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves suggests the Welsh were descended from a slave tribe employed by King Cambyses to mine for iron ore and other metals. He decided their status as slaves was to be terminated and they were released and later migrated to Wales to escape persecution, where even today they are involved in mining and metal smelting. Frank Parker mentions that in 1937 two brothers discovered the wrecks of two Egyptian ships buried in the mudflats of the Humber estuary, and that the survivors were probably the eldest sister of Nefertiti, princess Meritaten who had fled Egypt soon after the social rebellion (1,350 BC) resulting from the reformist reign of her father, the reformist Pharoah Akenaten. The source of the river Trent can be found on Biddulph moor where the famous Lindow Man was found buried in an ancient peat bog. To substantiate this theory he suggests that a solid gold artefact known as “The Mold Pectorial” which was discovered and dug out of a burial mound, Fairies Hill, near Mold in Wales must have been discarded by the princess or buried with her corpse when she died. The cape was within a Bronze Age burial mound named Bryn yr Ellyllon, which translates as “Goblins’ Hill”. The gold cape had been placed on the body of a person who was interred in a rough cist (stone-lined grave) within a burial mound. The preserved remains of the skeleton were fragmentary, and the cape was badly crushed. An estimated 200–300 amber beads, in rows, were on the cape originally, but only a single bead survives at the British Museum. Also associated with the cape were remains of coarse cloth and 16 fragments of sheet bronze which are likely to have been the backing for the gold: in places the gold was riveted onto the bronze sheeting with bronze rivets. There were also two gold ‘straps’ among the artefacts found. An urn with large quantities of burnt bone and ash was 60–90 cm (24–35 in) from the grave. Place names in the Derbyshire and Staffordshire regions as well as in Wales reveals a great deal of similarity and synchronicity with the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians and Canaanites. The river Tanat in central Wales for example is named after the Phoenician goddess Tanit. The Book of Leinster as well as the Welsh “Historia Brittonium” (Bangor Abbey) also mention visits by Eastern Mediterranean and African peoples as mentioned by Walter Bower, the Abbot of Inchom Abbey.
In Scotland they celebrate the 18th century “Braemar Gathering” on the first Saturday at the village of Braemar in N.E. Scotland where the Highland Games take place.
The Celtic Book of Invasions lists a string of foreign migrations into Britain and Ireland and supports the view that the original Britons can trace their origins to the ancient province of Troy, the true-blooded Irish Celts to Scythia and Egypt, and the Gauls to the Iberian peninsula. It records that firstly, there was the tribe of Cessair, followed by the Children of Noah, the people of Named (Partholans), the Fir Bolgs, the people of Danu (Tuatha de Danaan) and finally the Milesians. The Milesians are thought to have originated from Greece around 2,000 BC after having wandered around the Mediterranean for several centuries. They claim descent from Miletus, a son of Apollo who emigrated from Crete with a band of followers who first went to Syria, by way of Carenia in Asia Minor to Gaetulia in North Africa, from there to Cadiz and into Brigantium (now Compostella – NW Spain) and might refer to a migration in the 13th century BC of Dorians who displaced the Mycenaean Sea Peoples from the Aegean or Asia Minor. These groups would no doubt have had some contact with Etruscan, Cretan and Hellenic cultural influences and to some extent Egyptian, Persian and Scandinavian or Icelandic cultures.
One easily recalls The Song of Wandering Aengus – W. B. Yeats
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
Widecombe Fair takes place at the Dartmoor village of Widecombe on the second Tuesday of the month and was originally a livestock fair or market. There is also a gymkana, may-pole dancing and folk-singing. In Cumbria the Egremont Crab Fair takes place and plays host to various games and competitions from as early as 1267. More importantly it was initiated to celebrate the apple harvest from which a great deal of cider was made and wrestling, horse and dog racing, and the famous “Gurning Competition” contests were held. The first day of September was the “Feast of St. Giles” (the patron saint of nursing) in honour of the 7th century Greek hermit who lived in France.
Among the most memorable events to take place in September were the first steam locomotive, Stephenson’s Rocket which took to the rails in the opening ceremony of the Liverpool and Manchester railway on the 15th September, 1830. The Pilgrim Fathers migration in the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on the 16th September 1620. After nine weeks on the Atlantic it arrived at Cape Cod and its citizens were granted the territory of Virginia. While the 17th of September is understandably American Constitution Day. The 21st of September is the Feast of Christ’s Apostle, Matthew, the patron saint of tax collectors. The last of the liturgical festivals is Michaelmas on the 29th September celebrated to honour the building of Rome’s Basilica to St. Michael. This was usually accompanied with a Goose Feast where geese were fattened with the last of the fallen grain in the fields and then slaughtered for the benefit of the community.
This custom was said to have also commemorated the deliverance from the Spanish Invasion in which Queen Elizabeth had proclaimed a national goose feast for the nation but it may even go back to the 12th century. For farmers this was the “Gleaning Time” where they allowed the community to enter the arable fields and collect whatever scraps of food or grain remained in the fields after the harvest. A tradition mentions that the “last straw” was made into a straw doll or scarecrow and then ritually torched to symbolise renewal for the following year. Another tradition was the last harvest cart with its heavy load was beautifully decorated with boughs and flowers, the Harvest King & Queen sitting on top accompanied by minstrels and dancers. A variant of this custom was that farmers allowed any person to remove as much straw or grain as they could carry in one load from their fields. If the load dropped to the floor for any reason then the carrier would be held to a forfeit or fine. Another was to leave a large “knot” of grain in the middle of the field uncut and woven into a large sheaf as a symbol of hope for next year’s harvest.
A poem entitled “Domination of the Black” by Wallace Stevens seems to sum up the atmosphere during this time:
At night, by the fire,
The colours of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the colour of the heavy hemlocks
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.
The colours of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground. I heard them cry–the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire.
The autumnal equinox which takes place on the 23rd can be an indication of the types of weather to come and a time to renew the use of candlesticks. In Dartmoor there is Widecombe Fair held on the second Tuesday in September although dating back to the 1850’s. There are songs, dances, maypoles and the sale of livestock. An old rhyme describes the attendant’s joy and enthusiasm:
Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce,
Lend me your grey mare
All along, down along, out along lee
For I want to go to Widecombe Fair
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davey, Daniel Widdon, Harry Hawke,
An Uncle Tom Cobbly and all,
Yea Uncle Tom Cobbly and all.
In Scotland September heralds the commencement of the Highland Games at Braemar. Contestants are invited to take part in sports such as tossing the caber, throwing the hammer, hill races and other contests accompanied by displays of highland dancing to the sound of bagpipes.
In 1864 Chambers Book of Days wrote:
“Beautiful are the fern and heath-covered wastes in September-with their bushes bearing wild fruits, sloe, bullace (wild plum), and crab; and where one may lie hidden for hours, watching how beats, bird and insect pass their time away, and what they do in these solitudes.”
Although this was also the month for harvesting hops, this month and the next is ideal for mushroom spotting or wild foraging and if you’re reasonably good at identifying the edible ones then you’re in for a feast in the woodlands and meadows. But if you are in doubt about what to eat and what not to eat then purchase a reliable guide such as “Wild Food” by Roger Phillips, The Mushroom Feast by Jane Grigson or Food for Free by Richard Mabey. The Beef-steak Boletus, and the yellow trumpet-shaped Chanterelle are simply delicious when freshly picked and fried in butter with a little garlic and white wine. But beware of the deadly although colourful Amanita Muscaria with its bright red cap and white spots. Dragonflies, butterflies and moths are still on the wing but in particular the Red Admirals among gardens, woodland clearings and fields. Swallows and House Martens gather together for their long distance migrations to S. Africa. The polished brown, waxy conkers are falling off the Horse Chestnut trees, many varieties of apples and pears are ready for picking from orchards, blackberries are ripening and Hawthorn berries, Whitebeam berries and Rowanberries display their rich autumnal shades of red and crimson against their autumn foliage.
Customs relating to the fruiting and nut season are not to pick blackberries after Michaelmas because they belonged to the Devil and “Crack Nut Sunday” (a week before Michaelmas) whereby couples were allowed to roam woodlands collecting hazel nuts and making merry, the so-called “Lawless Hours & Days”. I will leave to your imagination what actually went on between couples in the woods but in the rural villages and towns prominent individuals such as a bishop, vicar or lord mayor could be pelted with ripe fruits with impunity.
Under the Linden by Walther von der Vogelweide (~1170 – ~1230)
Under the linden
in the heather
that’s where our double bed was.
There you’d find
both the flowers and the grass.
Down in the valley, down by the wood,
heigh de ho!
you should have heard the nightingale!
I came down,
down to the meadow:
my love was already there.
And he received me,
now I’m happy all the time.
Did we kiss? A thousand-fold,
heigh de ho!
look how red my mouth is!
In certain areas of England, most notably Kent, hops were ready for picking so migrant workers from the towns and cities would venture into rural areas where they could be employed on a casual basis. Hops were so important to the community and the nation then that a special Hop Festival was often held to celebrate the crop and refresh the thirsts of those who worked tirelessly in the fields. Known as Hop Hoodenin’ it usually featured the Queen of the Hops in a cart pulled by two horses who were accompanied by Morris Dancers and musicians. The second most important crop for harvesting at this time was barley which, when roasted provided the malt ingredient in beers and ales. In agricultural regions the landowner was obliged to invite his workers to a feast and fair at his expense (Michaelmas-29th September), so-called after the Catholic saint. St. Michael is regarded as the most singular and important saint for the Catholic Church. The tradition of eating goose at this time is an ancient custom based probably that the bird is plentiful and good-eating now.
Brewer’s Phrase & Fable; revised by Adrian Broom (Cassell Publishing Group)
Chamber’s Book of Days; R. Chambers (Chambers Harrap Publishers)
The English Year; Steve Roud (Penguin Press)
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