Category Archives: St. Distaff’s Day

Back to the Workaday World

I know, and I’m sorry: You thought you were rid of me after all those Book of Days posts for the Twelve Days of Christmas. I thought you were, too, but then late last night I remembered about the Back-to-Work holidays that follow Yuletide. There are two of them, plus another day especially for printers. It would seem that our ancestors had a lot more fun getting back to work after the Christmas festivities, much more than we do, for getting back to the workaday world came not without a little celebration. We might do well with some of that, too.

St. Distaff’s Day
January 7
The day after Epiphany sent the women back to their spinning and the day became known as St. Distaff’s Day. It’s a bit odd in that there is no saint named Distaff. Rather, the day is named after a traditional tool for spinning wool or flax into thread. Prior to the spinning wheel, it was the distaff and spindle that facilitated this work. The distaff is a tool traditionally associated with women and with women’s work, and to be sure, spinning was so associated with women’s work that the word spinster, which is happily not much used these days, 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. Any woman who spun thread (and that would have been most women in earlier times) would have known the distaff well.

St. Distaff’s Day was a day for mischief: yes, the women were trying to get back to their spinning, but the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was a mischievous one, 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… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the idea of returning to ordinary time.

Plough Monday
January 8
While the women always returned to their spinning on the Seventh of January, the men’s Back to Work day was a moveable one, falling on the Monday after Epiphany. This year, that happens to be the Eighth of January. There is a ceremonial ploughing of the ground on Plough Monday, 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. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to their sport.

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. And spring is not that far away in this world of spiraling circular tradition: Come February 2, we are halfway between Midwinter Solstice and Spring Equinox, a day marked by the holidays Candlemas, Imbolc, and Groundhog Day. It is a day seen in the traditional reckoning of time as spring’s first stirrings, even if winter still holds a strong grip. The sun is gaining strength by then, with considerably more daylight on the 2nd of February than there was on the 21st of December.

Copperman’s Day
January 8
The Monday after Epiphany is of special importance to printers like me, for it is also Copperman’s Day, an old Dutch printers’ holiday. The printshop apprentices would be given the day off so they could work on a project of their own and show off the skills they’d learnt from the master printers. Copperman’s Day prints were typically small keepsakes sold for a copper apiece.

Seth Thompson and I have been printing Copperman’s Day prints from handset metal and wood types here at our Lake Worth print shop since 2014. I already informed my boss at work that I’d be taking Monday off to print this year’s. What will it be? Ah, well, that is a secret for now. I’ll reveal that perhaps in the next Convivio Book of Days post, which, lucky for you and for me both, will not be tomorrow. We all get a much needed break from my yammering.  I’ll sign off now, and leave you with the poem “Saint Distaff’s Day, or the morrow after Twelfth Day” by Robert Herrick. It’s from his 1648 book Hesperides. It’s much better than anything I’ll ever write, and it goes like this:

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.

 

Image: “A Young Woman Holding a Distaff Before a Lit Candle” by Adam de Coster. Oil on canvas, circa early 1600s [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Every One to his Owne Vocation (and, Your January Book of Days)

Just when you thought you were rid of me, after all those Twelve Days of Christmas chapters… I am back again like a proverbial bad penny. Christmas may be over but the celebration in a way continues, just in a different light… for though we may indeed be back to our ordinary workaday world, our ancestors liked to make this transition with a little fun and ceremony. (One gathers that our ancestors were not as work-weary as we like to think; perhaps they would take pity on us with our hectic contemporary schedules.)

And so on this day after Epiphany, this first day back to ordinary time, comes St. Distaff’s Day. There are plenty of saints’ days through the year, but St. Distaff is a bit extraordinary, for there never was an historical St. Distaff. The day, rather, is named for a tool: the distaff is a tool that is part of the process of spinning wool or flax into thread, which is the first step to making cloth. When we think of spinning, we think of spinning wheels, but the distaff and spindle are earlier tools that preceded the spinning wheel. It is a tool traditionally associated with women and with women’s work, and to be sure, St. Distaff’s Day meant back to work for the women, always on this 7th of January. The men get their own back-to-work day soon enough, though, on the first Monday after Epiphany: Plough Monday, which this year will be on the 9th.

Spinning was so associated with women’s work that the word spinster, which is happily not much used these days, 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. Any woman who spun thread (and that would have been most women in earlier times) would know the distaff well.

St. Distaff’s Day was a day for mischief: yes, the women were trying to get back to their spinning, but the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was a mischievous one, 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… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the idea of returning to ordinary time.

There is an old saying for this Seventh of January that comes, actually, from the first two lines of a famous poem by Robert Herrick. It’s a poem from his 1648 book Hesperides, called “Saint Distaff’s Day, or the morrow after Twelfth Day.” The saying goes:

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day.

This is good advice even for us today. We begin now the shift from Christmastide, which stood outside ordinary time, to our regular routines. Why not make the transition more interesting?

Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

Speaking of transitioning to ordinary time… your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for January is finally ready. The calendar is our monthly gift to you, a nice companion to the the blog… and sometimes it takes me a while to get around to it, and for that I apologize. It is a printable PDF on standard US letter size paper. Enjoy. (I should probably start working on February’s calendar now!)

 

Our illustrative image, both here and on January’s calendar, is an old lead printer’s cut of accord in a peaceful shake of hands. It’s a 19th century cut that we’ve used for the past three years in our annual Copperman’s Day prints. Come Monday, it’ll be time for another Copperman’s Day print, for Monday brings not just Plough Monday but also Copperman’s Day, an old Dutch printer’s holiday. These are all holidays signifying a return to ordinary time after Christmas and all take on this attitude of “partly worke and partly play.” More than likely I’ll be telling you about Copperman’s Day (and honoring it) come Monday. For now, though, “Give St. Distaff all the right.”

 

Partly Work and Partly Play

YoungGirlwithDistaff

Christmas is past and now it is back to the ordinary workaday world. In older times, folks would cease most all work during the Christmas season, days considered outside of ordinary time. And here, on the heels of Epiphany, would come a number of traditional back-to-work holidays. The first comes today, and it is named for a saint who never did exist; rather, St. Distaff’s Day is named for a tool––one of those implements of the ordinary workaday world. Robert Herrick, one of our old favorite poets, wrote about St. Distaff’s Day in his 1648 book Hesperides:

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.

The distaff and the spindle were the common tools of spinning flax into cloth (the spinning wheel came much later), and with St. Distaff’s Day this day after Epiphany, the women were back at their spinning. There was a more common division of labor back then, of course. Any woman who spun thread (and that would have been most women in earlier times) would know the distaff well. Some trivia for you to impress people at parties: Spinning was so associated with women’s work that the word spinster, which is happily not much used these days, 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 and female children.

The men were not back at work in the fields until Plough Monday, which always falls on the Monday after Epiphany. And with the men still underfoot in the house, their job on St. Distaff’s Day seemed to be a mischievous one: their goal usually was 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… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the idea of returning to ordinary time. But this is the whole point of both St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday: yes, we may have to get back to work, but why not do it with a bit of ceremony and fun?

 

Image: “Young Girl with Distaff” by Pietro Rotari. Oil on canvas, early 18th century [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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