Today is Michaelmas, one of the old quarter days when taxes and payments were due. Until 1752 it was the mid-point of the year. Michaelmas was the end of the harvest period and, therefore, a day when annual and quarterly agricultural contracts were renewed. (Some still run from this time of year even now.)
There was less work to do on the farm in the autumn so fewer labourers were hired. Though they had money in their pockets from the harvest, after the Michaelmas fairs, many of the rural poor would find themselves
laid off for the winter empowered to take advantage of the leisure opportunities offered by the flexible labour market. One explanation for the term ‘Your goose is cooked’ comes from Michaelmas. Geese were traditionally eaten at this time of year, so if ‘your goose was cooked’ it meant you’d had all you were going to get. In an age when there was no welfare, that was another way of saying ‘You’re screwed!’
My primary school teacher used to say these last months were so named because they are the dying embers of the year. For me, though, this, rather than New Year, is the time when I take stock. Perhaps because I was in some form of education until my mid-twenties, I have come to see September as the start of the year. It is the time when things get back to normal after the summer break. It’s certainly a busy time. Our old headmaster used to make the same speech at the start of every school year, saying that half the year’s work gets done between now and Christmas. I think something similar is true in business.
So this cusp of summer and autumn is a good time to reflect. The nights start drawing in at a gallop. The sun is still shining but there is a sudden chill in the air and the smell of ice and smoke in the wind. My sister and I, having grown up in Nottingham, still call it the Goose Fair Smell.
Many poems and songs have been written about autumn but two, I think, capture the melancholy end-of-summer feeling very well. The first few lines of Don Henley’s Boys of Summer describe every seaside resort as the season draws to a close:
Nobody on the road
Nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air
The summer’s out of reach
The sun goes down alone….
My favourite autumn lines of all, though, are Kipling’s, as the prospect of an English winter brings on his wanderlust:
There’s a whisper down the field where the year has shot her yield,
And the ricks stand grey to the sun,
Singing: ‘Over then, come over, for the bee has quit the clover,
‘And your English summer’s done.’
Looking out of the window today, the English summer is well and truly done.
Thankfully, we don’t have to present ourselves at Michaelmas hiring fairs any more, though doubtless some would like to see their return. Perhaps, then, as well as a time to take stock, Michaelmas should also be a day for counting our blessings.