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
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.