Final Word

Holidays and the pope’s nose


We’ve just come through what felt like a season of holidays called Easter, for many marked by festive family meals and disputes over the pope’s nose.

Holidays are days on the calendar, set aside by custom or by law on which everyday activities like work and most business activities are set aside or substantially reduced. The most common purpose of these days is to give individuals, societies or groups an opportunity to celebrate of commemorate an important historical event, tradition or something with special cultural or religious significance.

Religious roots

The tradition of special holidays has its roots mostly in the desire or need to give ordinary people the opportunity for religious observances marked by special church services or rites/ceremonies. This is illustrated well by the anchor holiday of the Easter weekend, Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

The term ‘holiday’, as we know it today, in fact comes from the Old English word hāligdæg from hālig (holy) and dæg (day).

The word ‘holiday’ was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but then still as hāligdæg. In Middle English it became hāligdæg, with the dropping of the first ‘e’ in the word and around the 12th century the ‘a’ was replaced by an ‘o’, and eventually ‘holiday’ – in this spelling first recorded in 1460.

It is also around this time that the word became inclusive of the secular side of life. To this day both the single word ‘holiday’ and the two-word concept of ‘holy day’ are recognised.

In the Middle English period people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as ‘halibut’.

The pope’s nose

Today, at many family gatherings during a holiday, as happened in my family over Easter, not a halibut, but a roasted chicken or some other member of the bird family, be it a turkey, goose or duck, lands on the dinner table,

A part of that bird, which one mistakenly might suspect also has a ‘holy’ origin, often leads to a minor family dispute about who gets to eat the ‘pope’s nose’.

The ‘pope’s nose’ or pygostyle in evolutionary theory of the bird, is a skeletal condition in which the final few caudal vertebrae are fused into a single ossification, supporting the tail feathers and musculature. In modern birds, the rectrices attach to these.

Throughout history in various parts of the world there have been a number of variants of the term. In North Africa it is also called the sultan’s nose and after the Reformation in England and the establishment of Protestant churches it also became the ‘parson’s nose’.

In etymology there is no certainty about where, why, how and exactly when the term originated. We know for sure that the term was used by Longfellow in his Hyperion in 1839.

But according to the expression was already in use by at least 1740. And, according to it “reappeared in the 1873 edition of Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, defined as ‘the hind part of a goose - a savoury mouthful’.”

One version of where the term originated. places it early in the 2nd century at around 1400, claiming it comes from when “a carpenter had been contracted to provide new choir stalls for St Mary’s Church, Nantwich.

“The vicar was either slow to pay the artisan, or did not pay at all. In retaliation, on the last misericord in the stalls, the carpenter carved a bird with an image of that vicar's face with protuberant nose as rump. The carving is still visible today.”

Final word

That the “pope’s nose” as a description of that delectation at the rear-end of a roasted bird has over time taken hold of the imagination of people, is illustrated by the fact that it was sometimes used in reference to the licence plate light on early Volkswagen Beetles.

by Piet Coetzer

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