Those few words, “How now, brown cow?” is what we might call a lighthearted way of asking, “What’s up, doc?” or “What’s next?” Dictionaries tell us that the expression has its origin in the teaching of the English language and that teachers have used it to teach students how to pronounce rounded vowels.
Then there are those who say that the phrase had its origin in Scotland in the 1700s. It is said that brown cow meant a barrel of beer and that people could order a beer by saying, “How now, brown cow.” Perhaps it was Guinness stout which began brewing in 1759. I’ll drink to that!
At any rate this expression came to mind during our Christmas preparation, though for me it was converted to “Why now, brown cow?’ The lead up to the celebration of Christmas had gone very well. We had community caroling on December 9 and the Lions Club Christmas dinner and party on December 18 at McVeigh Hall. Both were joyful evening celebrations. I did not notice any “brown cow” at the dinner but I believe that Mr. Heineken and Miss Corona did make an appearance in the course of the evening.
On Saturday morning December 21, at the strong urging of the “commander in chief,” an army of church members and visitors gathered at St. Francis Church for the annual ritual of decorating the church for the Christmas Masses and season. It was a scene of hustle and bustle for three-plus hours. Then the final touches were put to the lighted creche. Randle and his assistants began to carefully place the many figures in the creche.
It was at this stage that I approached the creche to admire the work being completed and blurted out, “There is no cow. Where is the cow?” My outburst must have startled the assembled crew and prompted an immediate search of the choir loft and every closet in church. This search continued after lunch to no avail. As the son of a farmer who as a child had often taken the family cows to pasture, I was more than disappointed. Why now, brown cow?
I had almost given up on my search when, the next day, I called on St. Anthony, who may or may not have known what a cow is, for his help and he whispered in my ear that I should make one more climb to the choir loft, bend down low and look under the pew. I did so and, holy cow, there was our brown cow hidden from the normal viewing vantage point.
We celebrated Mass with a large congregation present on Christmas Eve and afterwards enjoyed light refreshments in nearby Damien Hall. The next morning we again celebrated Christmas Mass with the usual congregation present and all the while our brown cow stood guard over the baby Jesus in the manger. How now, brown cow! Happy New Year!
Anchor columnist Father Patrick Killilea, SS.CC., is pastor of St. Francis Parish in Kalaupapa, Hawaii.