Monday, 23 March 2009

Castor, Fratercula, Rissa...and Mater

Sunday was Mothers' Day in the UK. Or rather, it wasn't. In reality, this day when young children make appallingly bad cards, and take their long-suffering mums a cup of cold tea in bed, is properly termed Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday is a moveable 'feast'; its date is dependent on that of Easter, but it always falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. For this reason it was sometimes called Mid-Lent Sunday. Another alternative name for the day was Refreshment Sunday, as Lenten rules were relaxed for this one day only. Boys and girls in service were given the day off in order to visit their mothers, taking with them a little cake or a bunch of wild flowers. A far cry from today's blatant commercialism that encourage sons and daughters to spend outrageous sums of money on presents.

Lent is held by Christians to be a time of penitence and fasting in preparation for Easter. In the middle ages the Lenten diet was strictly controlled, and meat, eggs and dairy products were effectively banned during the forty days. But, not surprisingly, there was a way round the ban, and, sad to say it was the church that found the way round it. Well, monks, actually. These devious tonsured gentlemen determined that the beaver (then still living wild in the UK) was actually a fish, because it spent so much time in the water and had a scaly tail. Puffins, with their exclusively piscine diet, were also looked upon as fish. One presumes they stank of fish as well, so perhaps the monks can be forgiven! But the most curious 'fish' was the barnacle goose. This creature was thought to develop from the gum or sap of fir trees tossed into the sea. As the 'goose' grew, its beak would hang downwards in the water, it would develop feathers and eventually break free of the tree and fly away. What our monastic mates were looking at was the goose barnacle; how they came to associate the one with the other can only be guessed at. But not by me.

There were no beavers, puffins or barnacle geese in evidence during our post-lunch walk along the beach yesterday; just a few noisy gulls and the wheeling kittiwakes that form a colony at Seaford Head. These birds were apparently considered good eating by the islanders of St.Kilda, that most remote of Scottish islands, and about as far from Seaford as it's possible to get and still be in the United Kingdom. It's a surprise to me that kittiwakes were not regarded as fish by our forbears, because they apparently smell and taste every bit as bad as puffins. But there's no accounting for these things. I'm glad I went for the liver and bacon.

10 comments:

punk in writing said...

Ah, Mother's Day. Another occasion that has been overcommercialized.

The Mother's Day gift that almost reduced my mother to tears of joy was when me and my sister cleaned and organised the pantry and all cupboards in the kitchen.

As gifts go, we still haven't topped that one.

chris hale said...

Hi Punky.

A simple gesture, costing nothing but your time, is worth its weight in gold to Mum!

She is fortunate to have two such thoughtful daughters!

mo.stoneskin said...

Interesting and wonderfully written, as I've come to expect of you.

I'm actually in possession of some new evidence that suggests that beavers, puffins and barnacle geese are actually fish. I would hand it over to you for the outrageous fee of a cold cup of tea, a little cake and a bunch of wild flowers...

chris hale said...

Thanks Mo.

Are we talking fish, as in fish? If they are indeed fish, where does that leave halibut?

Incidentally, did you know that the word ghoti can also be pronounced fish? Of course you did!

Madame DeFarge said...

Effortlessly from Mums' Day to liver and bacon. That's what I love about your blog. You're a mine of information. Are you free for our office quiz team?

chris hale said...

MDF - by all means! Curiously, I have been having a bash at the More4 Pub Quiz recently, so I'm fully prepared!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

Liver and bacon is my kind of food. Beats Puffin any day and, besides, they're kinda cute!

chris hale said...

Quite right, Derrick! Who could find it in their heart to eat a cute little puffin!

Comedy Goddess said...

I think for Mothers Day, I would much prefer a little cake and a bunch of wild flowers instead of a puffin beaver ragout.

chris hale said...

CG - I agree. It has to be cake!