Monthly Archives: January 2021

A Proper Burns Night Supper

I think it’s fair to say that poet Amanda Gorman stole the show at last week’s inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. And for sure Bernie Sanders has since then––his mittened image is popping up everywhere right now! But Amanda Gorman: well, she showed us all that day the power of poetry to distill language into emotion as she swept us away with her words.

Robert Burns knew a thing or two about that, as well. He was known as the Bard of Scotland in his brief lifetime (1759 – 1796) and still is today. And tonight, throughout Scotland and in the homes of folks who love Rabbie Burns, it is Burns Night, the annual celebration of his birth. It is the traditional night for a Burns Supper. And who knows: someday in this country, perhaps we’ll be celebrating Gorman Night with a Gorman Supper.

The first known Burns Supper took place on the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death, on the 21st of July, 1801. It was celebrated by his friends at Burns Cottage at Alloway. That same year, a group of merchants, some of whom had known the poet, formed the Burns Club, which survives to this day in chapters around the globe. They held their first Burns Supper on what they thought was the poet’s birthday, January 29. That was in 1802. Before the event came around again in 1803, though, they discovered church records in Burns’ home parish that listed the date of his birth as January 25, 1759… and so they moved their annual Burns Supper to the 25th.

And here we are, then, tonight. It is the 25th of January, and in this time of social distancing, our Burns Night Supper will be an imaginary one. Since it is imaginary, let’s make it as perfect as possible. First, a piper will welcome the guests as they arrive. Let’s add a drummer, as well, for full effect. Once the company is assembled and seated at table, the host will stand and recite the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Robert Burns is not the author of this prayer, but he famously recited it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk. If the language seems both familiar and not, that’s because Burns spoke and wrote in his native Lowland Scots language––a sister language to modern English, but the two diverged independently from the same source (Early Middle English) in the 12th and 13th centuries. Easier to understand, I think, if you speak it aloud as you read (so please do).

After grace, upon saying Amen, the soup will be served. We suggest cock-a-leekie, a hearty soup of leeks and peppered chicken stock with barley, garnished with sliced prunes. Once the soup is done and the bowls are cleared, we hear the piper strike up the bagpipes again from inside the kitchen. All will rise, the piper will enter and proceed, and behind him, in glorious fanfare, is the chef, carrying in, on a platter, the main course: it is haggis––a savory pudding of mutton or lamb and oatmeal, suet, and spices. This elaborate procession is known as The Piping In of the Haggis. It is the highlight of the evening, accompanied by the Address to the Haggis. It’s a lengthy speech, delivered by our host, or perhaps by an honored guest:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dicht, [here, a knife is drawn & sharpened]
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht, [here, the haggis is cut end to end]
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmaist! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
“Bethankit” hums.

Is there that o’re his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect scunner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his wallie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whistle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thristle.

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

With the haggis now properly addressed, a whisky toast is drunk, and the company is seated once again for the meal of haggis with neeps and tatties (for us Stateside folks, that’s mashed swedes (rutabaga) and potatoes). There’ll be dessert with coffee––the signal for speeches and poetry to begin––followed by a cheese course. And there will be whisky flowing all the evening long (and since it’s an imaginary supper, no one will get drunk) with a toast to the lassies and a toast to the laddies and a toast to the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns. There will be more poems. And finally, with the work of the supper seemingly over, the host will ask the company to rise and join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne,” the song for which Robert Burns is most famous. We began our month singing it at New Year’s Eve, and we end our month singing it for Burns Night. (Here’s the version I like best––click here to hear the Revels perform it; it’s a tune you’ve probably not sung the song to, but one that feels, if you ask me, more fitting to the language.)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.

The words “auld lang syne” translate essentially to old long since, or old times. The song is one about remembering. And it is right, it is good, to spend some time remembering. Tonight, we remember Robert Burns and we remember those who love him. He was a sentimental poet, Robert Burns, and we need this on occasion: a cup o’ kindness, and the laughter and the tears that come with remembering. Perhaps we cannae have our Burns Supper tonight with friends… but a wee dram of whisky and an old song will do us well in remembering and warming a cold winter’s night. And so we raise our glass to you, and to the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns.

Image: “Robert Burns at Alloway” by John McGready. Lithograph (I think), 1896. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

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What a year it’s been since our last MLK, Jr. Day. At the very least, we’ve all been handed many opportunities this past year to reevaluate where we stand and to think hard about the true meaning of equality and justice and respect, and the privileges we have, or lack, based solely on the color of our skin (and the injustice of that). And to think about our own prejudices, and our actions. This, in a country where vast portions were built on generations of slave labor, an institution that, in the grand scheme of things, ended not that long ago. The town I live in was settled, in the 1880s, by two freed slaves: Samuel and Fannie James. I know people whose grandparents knew them. My grandparents, who all came to this country in the early 1900s, certainly met and knew people who were freed slaves. Such a long history of oppression and such an immense weight to overcome, for a people, and for a nation.

I don’t discuss politics much on the blog; I like to think it’s obvious where I stand without me having to state it. But today, since I’ve titled this chapter Respect, I will say it: What a miserable man we’ve had to endure these four years, and what a miserable time he has dragged us through. Pettiness, discord, and disrespect have reigned, and we knew it would, from the time he mocked a disabled journalist at a campaign rally. It is we, as a nation, who have sown the seeds of this discord and watched it grow. And now, today and this week, we stand at a crossroads.

Far from perfect at this, I do my best to stand with kindness and inclusiveness and respect to people of all cultures and beliefs––which is the principle that makes me excited to write this blog in the first place. I like our differences, and I want to celebrate them in a way that brings people together through tradition. And while there are the broader, abstract ideals that would have us treat others with respect and kindness, do we do this at the most local level? Do we treat the ones we love with respect and kindness? Are we patient with our family in our requests and in our answers to simple questions? Are we helpful, doing things for them without being asked? Do we speak to our family as nicely as we speak to strangers? Do we respect the life decisions other family members make? And do we take that respect out to our community, too? Do we champion those who need a boost, or whose voices need to be heard? So many tough questions as we examine our own actions in regard to respect. When I ask myself these questions, I know I’ve got work to do. You may have some work to do, too. And that’s ok; that’s what a holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is all about: to remind us of how far we’ve come to get here, and how far we have to go to get farther along.

I’ve mentioned this before, but years ago I’d send occasional contributions to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. They, in turn, would send me return address labels imprinted with my name and address and a message: Teach Tolerance. I rarely used the labels, because the message kind of irked me. If I did use them, I would cross out the word Tolerance and write in the word Respect. Tolerance, it seems to me, falls short in the goal of accepting others; Respect feels more like we’re actually making progress in understanding each other.

Anyway, today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2021 in the United States of America, these are the things first and foremost on my mind, as I strive to be the best version of myself that I can. If I am open and treat others as I hope they would treat me, I think that’s a good foundation.


Image: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. Photograph by Ronald Scherman [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Back to the Workaday World


With the Twelve Days of Christmas now officially past, we enter again into the workaday world. Nowadays, we tend to get back to work right after Christmas. If we are lucky, maybe we’ll be off ’til New Year’s Day. There was a time when lots of folks would be off from the major part of their labors for all of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And once they went back to work once Christmas had passed, it was done with a bit of fun and ceremony. In England, for the women, it was traditionally the 7th of January; for the men, it was the Monday following Epiphany. These two days are known as St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday. We’ll begin with the women and a famous poem about the day by Robert Herrick, one of our favorite convivial British poets from the 17th century. He sets the tone right from the start, with, I think, some very good advice given in those first two lines:

Saint Distaff’s Day, or the Morrow after Twelfth Day
by Robert Herrick, 1648

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the Plough soone free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a-spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Let the maides bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

It may very well be St. Distaff’s Day––when I first came across a mention of it in 1992 or so––that is responsible for my fascination with traditional customs and old ways. It was the first two lines of the poem I knew back then, and I was so happy to run into this tradition that allowed me to hang on to some semblance of Christmas for yet another day. I’ve learnt a lot more about St. Distaff’s Day since. So, let’s explain it… and Plough Monday, as well (along with this year’s dates).

January 7
The English have a long history of creating saints’ days for saints that never existed at all. St. Monday was the name given to the long weekends sometimes taken by shoemakers, and St. Tibb was often used as a metaphor for never, as in, “Hey, I lent you a shilling last week; when will I get my money back?” “Worry not, I’ll be sure to have it back to you by St. Tibb’s Day.” Which is all well and good until the lender realizes that there is no St. Tibb’s Day. Neither St. Tibb nor St. Monday ever existed; nor did St. Distaff. The distaff, however, was a central tool to what was considered in those days “Women’s Work”: the spinning of wool or flax to make fiber for weaving into cloth. The distaff and spindle were the tools that preceded the spinning wheel, and rare it would have been to find a woman who knew not how to use them. We get the word spinster from this, which was once was a recognized legal term in England to describe an unmarried woman, and the terms spear side and distaff side were also legal terms to distinguish the inheritances of male from female children.

And so the women returned to their spinning each 7th of January, this “morrow after Twelfth Day.” Meanwhile, the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was one of mischief, with the goal usually being to set fire to the flax the women were spinning. The women were wise to this custom, though, and typically kept several buckets of water nearby. Very often, it was the men who got the worst of it: to have a bucket of water dumped on you in the cold of January (that’s the “bewash the men” part)… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the sport of returning to ordinary time. Meanwhile, the men had customs of their own to attend to, preparing for their day.

First Monday after Epiphany
The men got a moveable date for their traditional Back to Work day. It’s a holiday that is noted as far back as 15th century pre-Reformation England as a religious festival in which money would be raised for the parish. Plough lights would be illuminated in the churches as a way of blessing the local farmers and their fields and crops. The parish was often the home of a community plough, as well, for farmers who could not afford their own. When the Church of England broke away from Rome, this was one of many practices that were deemed “popish” and left behind, but by the late 1700s, Plough Monday began seeing a revival, with a distinct shift from its origins. In its newer incarnation, there was a lot more ale involved. There would be a ceremonial ploughing of the ground, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be blessed and finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well.

As for the men’s costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess… which comes only a few weeks from now, for in the traditional reckoning of time, spring will have its first stirrings with St. Brigid’s Day and Candlemas at the start of February. It is Brigid that personifies the young maid of spring. Indeed, Brigid is our bridge from winter to spring.

And so back to work, back to the workaday world. In this house we are holding on to our Christmas until Candlemas, as is our custom… but it is back to earning a living again, and earning our daily bread, and back to regular routines.


Today’s two images, like bookends on this chapter, are taken from the Chambers Bros. Book of Days, published in Edinburgh, 1869. The top one illustrates their chapter on St. Distaff’s Day; the bottom one, Plough Monday.