Colyford Goose Fayre, Devon. Photo: seatonbay.com
Today, the 29th September, is Michaelmas Day, the feast of St Michael the Archangel, and historically in England one of the four “Quarter Days” that marked the beginning or ending of legal contracts (between landlord and tenant, or between employer and employee). As such, it often witnessed Hiring Fairs, which started in the reign of Edward III and lasted up until the Second World War in some places, where employers would look for new apprentices, and would-be employees would wear a badge or carry a tool to denote their skill (for example, a crook for a shepherd, or a milking-pail for a dairymaid). Once agreement had been reached regarding rates of pay, etc., the employer would give their new worker a shilling (also known as earnest money, fest, God’s penny or arles) to seal the bargain. These fairs became important festivals, and would, like many similar events, often descend into drunken revelry.
Traditionally, a fattened goose was roasted and eaten on Michaelmas Day, and tenants would often give one to their landlord as part of their rent (which would have been due at Michaelmas, as a Quarter Day). There are still goose fairs held at some places in England today, the largest and most famous of which is Nottingham Goose Fair, which dates from the Thirteenth Century, and two smaller ones in Devon – the Goosey Fair in Tavistock, and the Colyford Goose Fayre in Seaton Bay (see photo above). When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in Britain in 1752, many people continued to celebrate important feasts on their old dates, several days later (for example, Old Twelfth Night on January 17th), and so the Nottingham and Tavistock goose fairs are now held in early October, and it is no longer legal in the UK to sell live poultry at markets, so the fairs today are more about rides and (cooked) food.
But Colyford’s tiny fayre is perhaps closest in spirit to those earlier fairs, with villagers dressing in medieval costume, local produce for sale, a demonstration of traditional skills such as archery, and a mummers’ play.
Horticulturally speaking, there are at least a couple of flora with connections to Michaelmas – the aster, or “Michaelmas daisy”, is so-called because it blooms late in the year. And then of course there is the legend that, when St Michael cast Satan out of Heaven, he fell into a blackberry bush and cursed, spat or urinated on it (take your pick). According to tradition, that is why blackberries go sour after Michaelmas.