About this time of year I often visit a certain walnut tree in open country near my old home in Combe. This is partly because it stands near a favourite mushroom field, the secret location of which I am not about to tell; partly because I like eating walnuts; and partly because I enjoy planting trees. The oldest tree I have planted is now 25 and producing nuts itself.
Seasons change, but none can have changed — or declined — as much as the period leading up to the quarter day of Michaelmas (September 29, the feast of St Michael and All Angels), which for centuries was celebrated with almost as much gusto as Christmas but is now barely given a passing nod except, perhaps, at Oxford University where the coming term is at least still allowed to bear its name.
The run-up to the feast included Holy Rood Day on September 14, also known as the Devil’s Nutting Day, in which youths and maids would ‘go a-nutting’, an expression which crops up in songs and plays from the 16th century onwards as a byword for sex and seduction — with a tradition, dating back to the time of Charles II, that a good year for nuts was also a good year for babies.
In Oxfordshire, nuts were a great source of free food for poor farm workers — until, that is, the 1930s, when walnut wood was in high demand for car dashboards, and cocktail cabinets. Indeed, my particular walnut tree was once for the axe. Luckily, its trunk was found to be split and it was spared.
Michaelmas Eve was known as Crack-Nut Day and nuts were cracked in church. On Michaelmas Day anyone who could afford it ate a ‘stubble goose’ — a bird reared that year and prepared around harvest time. It was held that anyone who did not eat one would lack money in the coming year. Printers and publishers held a feast called ‘wayzgoose’ to mark the changing season and the advent of the period in which they would need to work by candle light.
Michaelmas was sometimes called Pack Rag Day because so many people were busy changing their accommodation and jobs. This was the season of hiring fairs, or mops, which persisted in Oxfordshire until the turn of the 19th century and were not finally killed off until the First World War.
Labourers and would-be serving girls turned up to be hired for the coming year. They carried symbols of their trades in their button-holes, such as a piece of whipcord for a carter, a piece of sponge for a groom-gardener, or a piece of straw for a thatcher — which was replaced with a piece of ribbon when the wearer was hired. The mops were often followed by a second ‘Runanaway Mop’ the next week for those who had either not been lucky first time around, or had found their contract had somehow fallen through.
Oxfordshire mops included those at Abingdon, a hiring fair with a large fun fair element on the first Monday and Tuesday after Michaelmas with a Runaway the following week; Banbury, on the first Thursday after Old Michaelmas (October 10); Bicester, three October fairs known as Hiring, Runaway, and Confirmation; Burford on September 25; Chipping Norton, on the Wednesday before October 11; Deddington, on September 30; Faringdon in mid-October with a Runaway ten days later; Henley, on the first Thursday after September 21; Thame, on Old Michaelmas Day; Wallingford, on the last Wednesday in September; and Wantage, in mid-October. In Deddington and Stratford (Warwickshire) ox roasting formed part of the feast.
What with the harvest safely home, going a-nutting, and a year’s wages in workers’ pockets, September must have been a merry month for many. So merry that Victorian middle classes worried greatly about the morality of hiring fairs. In Burford, for instance, girls seeking employment transferred to a room upstairs in the Tolsey, away from the young men; and in Banbury they were moved to an upstairs room in Parsons Street.
The Times in 1858 fulminated against mops. It said that drink was the curse of the working classes. Funny that; I thought everyone knew (thanks to Wilde) that work was the curse of the drinking classes.