What a year it’s been since our last MLK, Jr. Day. At the very least, we’ve all been handed many opportunities this past year to reevaluate where we stand and to think hard about the true meaning of equality and justice and respect, and the privileges we have, or lack, based solely on the color of our skin (and the injustice of that). And to think about our own prejudices, and our actions. This, in a country where vast portions were built on generations of slave labor, an institution that, in the grand scheme of things, ended not that long ago. The town I live in was settled, in the 1880s, by two freed slaves: Samuel and Fannie James. I know people whose grandparents knew them. My grandparents, who all came to this country in the early 1900s, certainly met and knew people who were freed slaves. Such a long history of oppression and such an immense weight to overcome, for a people, and for a nation.

I don’t discuss politics much on the blog; I like to think it’s obvious where I stand without me having to state it. But today, since I’ve titled this chapter Respect, I will say it: What a miserable man we’ve had to endure these four years, and what a miserable time he has dragged us through. Pettiness, discord, and disrespect have reigned, and we knew it would, from the time he mocked a disabled journalist at a campaign rally. It is we, as a nation, who have sown the seeds of this discord and watched it grow. And now, today and this week, we stand at a crossroads.

Far from perfect at this, I do my best to stand with kindness and inclusiveness and respect to people of all cultures and beliefs––which is the principle that makes me excited to write this blog in the first place. I like our differences, and I want to celebrate them in a way that brings people together through tradition. And while there are the broader, abstract ideals that would have us treat others with respect and kindness, do we do this at the most local level? Do we treat the ones we love with respect and kindness? Are we patient with our family in our requests and in our answers to simple questions? Are we helpful, doing things for them without being asked? Do we speak to our family as nicely as we speak to strangers? Do we respect the life decisions other family members make? And do we take that respect out to our community, too? Do we champion those who need a boost, or whose voices need to be heard? So many tough questions as we examine our own actions in regard to respect. When I ask myself these questions, I know I’ve got work to do. You may have some work to do, too. And that’s ok; that’s what a holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is all about: to remind us of how far we’ve come to get here, and how far we have to go to get farther along.

I’ve mentioned this before, but years ago I’d send occasional contributions to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. They, in turn, would send me return address labels imprinted with my name and address and a message: Teach Tolerance. I rarely used the labels, because the message kind of irked me. If I did use them, I would cross out the word Tolerance and write in the word Respect. Tolerance, it seems to me, falls short in the goal of accepting others; Respect feels more like we’re actually making progress in understanding each other.

Anyway, today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2021 in the United States of America, these are the things first and foremost on my mind, as I strive to be the best version of myself that I can. If I am open and treat others as I hope they would treat me, I think that’s a good foundation.


Image: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. Photograph by Ronald Scherman [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Back to the Workaday World


With the Twelve Days of Christmas now officially past, we enter again into the workaday world. Nowadays, we tend to get back to work right after Christmas. If we are lucky, maybe we’ll be off ’til New Year’s Day. There was a time when lots of folks would be off from the major part of their labors for all of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And once they went back to work once Christmas had passed, it was done with a bit of fun and ceremony. In England, for the women, it was traditionally the 7th of January; for the men, it was the Monday following Epiphany. These two days are known as St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday. We’ll begin with the women and a famous poem about the day by Robert Herrick, one of our favorite convivial British poets from the 17th century. He sets the tone right from the start, with, I think, some very good advice given in those first two lines:

Saint Distaff’s Day, or the Morrow after Twelfth Day
by Robert Herrick, 1648

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the Plough soone free your team;
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.
Let the maides bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

It may very well be St. Distaff’s Day––when I first came across a mention of it in 1992 or so––that is responsible for my fascination with traditional customs and old ways. It was the first two lines of the poem I knew back then, and I was so happy to run into this tradition that allowed me to hang on to some semblance of Christmas for yet another day. I’ve learnt a lot more about St. Distaff’s Day since. So, let’s explain it… and Plough Monday, as well (along with this year’s dates).

January 7
The English have a long history of creating saints’ days for saints that never existed at all. St. Monday was the name given to the long weekends sometimes taken by shoemakers, and St. Tibb was often used as a metaphor for never, as in, “Hey, I lent you a shilling last week; when will I get my money back?” “Worry not, I’ll be sure to have it back to you by St. Tibb’s Day.” Which is all well and good until the lender realizes that there is no St. Tibb’s Day. Neither St. Tibb nor St. Monday ever existed; nor did St. Distaff. The distaff, however, was a central tool to what was considered in those days “Women’s Work”: the spinning of wool or flax to make fiber for weaving into cloth. The distaff and spindle were the tools that preceded the spinning wheel, and rare it would have been to find a woman who knew not how to use them. We get the word spinster from this, which was once was a recognized legal term in England to describe an unmarried woman, and the terms spear side and distaff side were also legal terms to distinguish the inheritances of male from female children.

And so the women returned to their spinning each 7th of January, this “morrow after Twelfth Day.” Meanwhile, the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was one of mischief, with the goal usually being to set fire to the flax the women were spinning. The women were wise to this custom, though, and typically kept several buckets of water nearby. Very often, it was the men who got the worst of it: to have a bucket of water dumped on you in the cold of January (that’s the “bewash the men” part)… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the sport of returning to ordinary time. Meanwhile, the men had customs of their own to attend to, preparing for their day.

First Monday after Epiphany
The men got a moveable date for their traditional Back to Work day. It’s a holiday that is noted as far back as 15th century pre-Reformation England as a religious festival in which money would be raised for the parish. Plough lights would be illuminated in the churches as a way of blessing the local farmers and their fields and crops. The parish was often the home of a community plough, as well, for farmers who could not afford their own. When the Church of England broke away from Rome, this was one of many practices that were deemed “popish” and left behind, but by the late 1700s, Plough Monday began seeing a revival, with a distinct shift from its origins. In its newer incarnation, there was a lot more ale involved. There would be a ceremonial ploughing of the ground, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be blessed and finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well.

As for the men’s costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess… which comes only a few weeks from now, for in the traditional reckoning of time, spring will have its first stirrings with St. Brigid’s Day and Candlemas at the start of February. It is Brigid that personifies the young maid of spring. Indeed, Brigid is our bridge from winter to spring.

And so back to work, back to the workaday world. In this house we are holding on to our Christmas until Candlemas, as is our custom… but it is back to earning a living again, and earning our daily bread, and back to regular routines.


Today’s two images, like bookends on this chapter, are taken from the Chambers Bros. Book of Days, published in Edinburgh, 1869. The top one illustrates their chapter on St. Distaff’s Day; the bottom one, Plough Monday.


20 + C + M + B + 21


I know, I know: the title of this chapter of the Convivio Book of Days looks more like part of an algebraic equation than the start of a piece about the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It’s actually an inscription, one that we will be writing in chalk on the lintel above our door tonight. It is Epiphany: the day that tradition tells us the Magi arrived at the stable to see the newborn child. It is the part of the Christmas story that expands it to the world beyond Bethlehem, for the Magi came from afar to see this miracle, and brought the news with them back to their lands. Seeing the child was their great epiphany, and in turn, ours.

They are known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, those three wise men, and it is their initials, surrounded by the new year, that make the inscription that we will write above our door. It’s a tradition taught to my family by Father Brice, who would bless chalk and give it out to his congregation at St. Paul’s in Lighthouse Point each Epiphany Mass. I’ve never known anyone else to follow this custom but Father Brice and my family, but two summers ago––when Seth and I traveled to the part of Austria where a half hour drive could find you in Switzerland or Germany or Lichtenstein, depending on which direction you were going––we saw so many doorways inscribed, both indoors and out. The doorway in the photo today is the door to the chapel at Schattenburg, the 13th century castle that looks out over the City of Feldkirch in Austria. I photographed an awful lot of doorways that trip. Surrounded by so many lintel inscriptions, I felt like I was amongst people I understood, and who understood me.

The holiday itself is older even than Christmas, as holy days go. It is one of the earliest celebrations of the Church. In some places, Epiphany rivals Christmas––especially in Latin America, where the Three Kings made their rounds last night, delivering presents, just as they did that first Christmas. They stop on their way through Italy, too, to invite la Befana, the kindly old witch, to join them. As usual, she was far too busy with her housework, which, in my experience, is usually the way things go. (My family is full of Befanas, women and men who get so wrapped up in making sure their houses are as clean and tidy as possible, and I’ve no doubt they would have declined the invitation of the Magi, too.) But that first Christmas, when la Befana told the Magi to carry on without her, she eventually grew remorseful for not joining them… and so she set out to find them. Alas, it was too late. She never found the three kings and she never found the child, and so each Twelfth Night, even to this day, she rides out on her broom in search of them all. As she searches, she leaves presents in the shoes of good children. (Not so good children? They get coal, but even that isn’t so bad, because la Befana’s coal is sweet as candy.)

It is la Befana’s job to sweep away Christmas, too, for another year. Before she does, though, you will find us outside on the porch with a stepladder and a piece of chalk (no longer blessed, for Father Brice is long gone). We do this here at our home, and we’ll do it at the family home, too, when next we are there. All who are gathered will take turns writing the inscription on the lintel above the door: it is, as I said, the initials of the wise men, blanketed on each side by the year, punctuated with crosses: 20+C+M+B+21. Each year, my silent prayer outside in the cold night air is that no one will be missing when we next gather to do this. There the inscription stays, all the year through if the weather be fine. And though Christmas be gone, still the inscription reminds us of Christmas’s presence as we pass each day through that portal. The inscription is a magic charm of sorts, protecting the house and those who pass through that doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas.

And while I promised that you’d be rid of me now, after twelve continuous days of writings, the fact remains that tomorrow brings another Christmas-related holiday: the 7th of January each year brings St. Distaff’s Day, the first of the Back to Work holidays on the heels of the Christmas season. It’s too fascinating to not discuss… so if you have room in your hearts for one more visit from me this week, I will do all I can to be there. And so be it.

I’ll be talking about these things and showing some good books, too, today at 3 PM Eastern on a Jaffe Center for Book Arts webinar called Book Arts 101: Caravan. You have to register to watch the live broadcast on Zoom: click here to register. There will be a simulcast on the Jaffe Center’s Facebook page, too. And on Friday, from 2 to 5 PM Eastern, you’re welcome to join me again as I host the Real Mail Fridays St. Distaff’s Day Social. Come and go as you please; most folks joining in will be writing letters, but sometimes I do other things, like bind books. There is good music and lots of quiet working time in the company of others, and once or twice an hour, we break for a some focused conversation.