Monday, January 9, 2012

St. Distaff and Plough Monday

While January 7th may be known as St. Distaff's Day, there is, in fact, no such person. The day is named for the distaff, a wooden tool with one narrow end and one flat end wrapped with raw fiber, such as flax, to be spun on a drop spindle or, later, the spinning wheel. In England, as well as other countries, the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were considered a time of rest from the labors of spinning. January 7 marked the first day after the 12 days of Christmas when women would return to their normal duties, spinning whenever they had a free moment. However, it is unlikely much spinning actually got done. As women returned to their spinning, custom encouraged men to tease the women by setting fire to their flax or wool. This act in turn allowed women the pleasure of quenching the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug. Robert Herrick’s (1591-1674) poem, “St. Distaff’s Day; or, the Morrow After Twelfth Day” tells us:

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
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.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night.
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation

Today when we think about spinning, we envision the women we see spinning at fairs and craft shows, who do it for a hobby or pleasure. But it wasn't always so. Before the invention of factory-made cloth, the task of spinning constituted perhaps the most representative of all female chores. Before the invention of the spinning wheel, spinning on what is known as the drop spindle was a slow and tedious task. The spinning of one pound of woollen yarn could take about one week and one pound of heavy cotton yarn several weeks to spin. There are images from as far back as time of the Ancient Egyptians showing how the distaff was used to hang the flax or tow and the spindle to effect the twisting. The distaff was carried under the arm, and the spindle left dangling and turning in the fingers below, and forming an axis round which to wind parcels of the thread as soon as it was made.

Women of all ages, ranks, and incomes spun thread. In the evening, after the chores of the day were done, there would be spinning, and the spindle would be taken to visit friends as the task could be undertaken at the same time as a conversation. A further indicator of the importance of spinning in the life of women in the past, is the fact that it has entered the language. Spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman. In his Law Dictionary, Blount, wrote: 'It is the addition usually given to all unmarried women, from the Viscount's daughter downward.' Similarly the distaff side and the spear side were once legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of female from that of male children-and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself. A French proverb states that "The crown of France never falls to the distaff."

Whereas the women returned to their work on January 7, the day after Epiphany, men didn't return to work until the following Monday, or Plough Monday. In medieval times the ploughboys were supposed to return to work on Plough Monday, the start of the new ploughing season. In some areas, particularly in northern England and East Anglia, a plough was hauled from house to house in a procession, collecting money. Plough Monday was an important ritual for agricultural workers, providing the opportunity to make some money at a difficult time of year. The plough was paraded through the streets, often accompanied by musicians, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, called the "Bessy", and a man in the role of the "fool", with the aim to extort money from the wealthy landowners. All done in fun, of course.

I say in fun, but the penance for non-payment was to have the front doorstep pulled up with the plough.

The itinerant plough boys, often known as Plough Jacks, Plough Bullocks, Plough Witches or Plough Stots, depending on the locality of the custom, would blacken their faces as a disguise, a tradition still practiced today. In the Cambridgeshire villages of Ramsey and Whittlesey,  a Straw Bear was paraded through the village by the ploughwitches. A Straw Bear is still paraded through the streets as part of the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival.

In the Isles of Scilly, locals would cross-dress and then visit their neighbors to joke about local occurrences. There would be "goose dancing" and considerable drinking and revelry.

So, what can you do to celebrate the return to work? Don't groan...make it fun! I realize most people returned to work days or weeks ago, and after all the holiday festivities many relish the idea of NOT celebrating anything. But with so many people out of work, it is still a time to be thankful, and that can be a celebration all of its own!

So, make a dish special to your family, give a blessing to any tools associated with your job (even if it's an unpaid job like domestic goddess!) and plan something fun to do.

Make every day a celebration!

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