St Distaff's Day

Here Christ-tide ought to end, and men and women should have returned

to their ordinary avocations, but the long holiday demoralised them;

and although the women were supposed to set to work on the day

succeeding Twelfth day, thence called St. Distaff's day, or Rock[94]

day, there was rough play, as Herrick tells us:--

Partly work, and partly play,

Ye must, on St. Distaff's 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:

Bring in pails 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 owne vocation.

The men, however, could not settle down to work so speedily, serious

work not beginning till after Plough Monday, or the Monday after

Twelfth Day. Tusser says:

Plough Munday, next after that twelf tide is past,

Bids out with the plough--the worst husband is last.

If plowman get hatchet, or whip to the skrene,

Maids loseth their cocke, if no water be seen.

This verse would be rather enigmatical were it not explained in

Tusser Redivivus (1744, p. 79). After Christmas (which, formerly,

during the twelve days, was a time of very little work) every

gentleman feasted the farmers, and every farmer their servants and

task-men. Plough Monday puts them in mind of their business. In the

morning, the men and the maid-servants strive who shall show their

diligence in rising earliest. If the ploughman can get his whip, his

ploughstaff, hatchet, or any thing that he wants in the field, by the

fireside before the maid hath got her kettle on, then the maid loseth

her Shrove-tide cock, and it belongs wholly to the men. Thus did our

forefathers strive to allure youth to their duty, and provided them

with innocent mirth as well as labour. On this Plough Monday they have

a good supper and some strong drink.

In many parts of the country it was made a regular festival, but, like

all these old customs, it has fallen into desuetude. However, Hone's

Every-Day Book was not written so long ago, and he there says: In

some parts of the country, and especially in the North, they draw the

plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople.

Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to

their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistcoats

beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with

gay coloured ribbons tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are

smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old

woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened,

and called the Bessy. Sometimes the sport is assisted by a humourous

countryman to represent a fool. He is covered with ribbons, and

attired in skins, with a depending tail, and carries a box to collect

money from the spectators. They are attended by music and Morris

Dancers, when they can be got; but it is always a sportive dance with

a few lasses in all their finery, and a superabundance of ribbons.

The money collected is spent at night in conviviality.

Chambers's Book of Days also gives an account of this frolic. A

correspondent, who has borne a part (cow-horn blowing) on many a

Plough Monday in Lincolnshire, thus describes what happened on these

occasions under his own observation:--Rude though it was, the Plough

procession threw a life into the dreary scenery of winter as it came

winding along the quiet rutted lanes on its way from one village to

another; for the ploughmen from many a surrounding thorpe, hamlet, and

lonely farm-house united in the celebration of Plough Monday. It was

nothing unusual for at least a score of the 'sons of the soil' to yoke

themselves with ropes to the plough, having put on clean smock-frocks

in honour of the day. There was no limit to the number who joined in

the morris dance, and were partners with 'Bessy,' who carried the

money box; and all these had ribbons in their hats, and pinned about

them, wherever there was room to display a bunch. Many a hard-working

country Molly lent a helping hand in decorating her Johnny for Plough

Monday, and finished him with an admiring exclamation of--'Lawks,

John! thou dost look smart, surely!' Some also wore small bunches of

corn in their hats, from which the wheat was soon shaken out by the

ungainly jumping which they called dancing. Occasionally, if the

winter was severe, the procession was joined by threshers carrying

their flails, reapers bearing their sickles, and carters with their

long whips, which they were ever cracking to add to the noise, while

even the smith and the miller were among the number, for the one

sharpened the plough-shares, and the other ground the corn; and Bessy

rattled his box, and danced so high that he showed his worsted

stockings and corduroy breeches; and, very often, if there was a thaw,

tucked up his gown-skirts under his waistcoat and shook the bonnet off

his head, and disarranged the long ringlets that ought to have

concealed his whiskers. For Bessy is to the procession of Plough

Monday what the leading figurante is to the opera or ballet, and

dances about as gracefully as the hippopotami described by Dr.

Livingstone. But these rough antics were the cause of much laughter,

and rarely do we ever remember hearing any coarse jest that could call

up an angry blush to a modest cheek.

No doubt they were called 'plough bullocks' through drawing the

plough, as bullocks were formerly used, and are still yoked to the

plough in some parts of the country. The rubbishy verses they recited

are not worth preserving, beyond the line which graces many a

public-house sign, of 'God speed the Plough.' At the large farm-house,

besides money, they obtained refreshment; and, through the quantity of

ale they thus drank during the day, managed to get what they called

'their load' by night.

But the great event of the day was when they came before some house

which bore signs that the owner was well-to-do in the world, and

nothing was given to them. Bessy rattled his box, and the ploughmen

danced, while the country lads blew their bullock's horns, or shouted

with all their might; but if there was still no sign, no forthcoming

of either bread and cheese or ale, then the word was given, the

ploughshare driven into the ground before the door or window, the

whole twenty men yoked pulling like one, and, in a minute or two, the

ground was as brown, barren, and ridgy as a newly ploughed field. But

this was rarely done, for everybody gave something, and, were it but

little, the men never murmured, though they might talk of the

stinginess of the giver afterwards amongst themselves, more especially

if the party was what they called 'well off in the world.' We are not

aware that the ploughmen were ever summoned to answer for such a

breach of the law, for they believe, to use their own expressive

language, 'they can stand by it, and no law in the world can touch

'em, 'cause it's an old charter.'

One of the mummers generally wears a fox's skin in the form of a

hood; but, beyond the laughter the tail that hangs down his back

awakens by its motion when he dances, we are at a loss to find a

meaning. Bessy formerly wore a bullock's tail behind, under his gown,

and which he held in his hand while dancing, but that appendage has

not been worn of late.

On the 2nd of February--the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed

Virgin Mary--all Christ-tide decorations are to be taken down, and

with them ends all trace of that festive season.

Farwell, Crystmas fayer and fre;

Farwell, Newers Day with the;

Farwell, the Holy Epyphane;

And to Mary now sing we.

Revertere, revertere, the queen of blysse and of beaute.