Category Archives: St. Distaff’s Day

Plough Monday & Copperman’s Day

PloughMonday

With the Christmas season’s end last week, the women had their “official” and traditional Back to Work day last Wednesday, on the 7th of January, with St. Distaff’s Day. But tomorrow, the first Monday after Epiphany, it’s time for the men to have their own version of this. It’s Plough Monday, and there may be some ceremonial ploughing of the frozen ground on this day, but mostly it is the last of the Christmas ceremonies in this period of shifting out of Christmastide and into ordinary time.

Of course today we welcome a more egalitarian approach: why shouldn’t the men be at the spindle and distaff, if they so wish, and the women at the plough? Nonetheless, these are traditions that come out of a time of more traditional division of labor between the sexes, and we heartily encourage you to mix things up to your liking. Our goal, simply, is to help you be aware of days worth celebrating, of course.

And so on Plough Monday it would be not at all unusual to see a gaggle of men parading through the village with a plough, finely decorated. The men themselves would be finely decorated, too, in all manner of foolish costumes, hearkening the Feast of Fools aspect of the Twelve Days of Christmas that have just passed. One man will be dressed as the Bessy, an old woman, and whether he realizes it or not, she is the personification of the old hag of winter or the goddess in her crone stage. And the ploughmen may perform an old mummers play, filled with images of death and rebirth. Soon, of course, winter will pass and it will be time to plough the earth in earnest and these things all relate to each other. With the spring, the young goddess will be born again. Though all seems cold now, and dead, life will return.

There will be mysterious old dances and a good deal of noise in the banging of drums and the blowing of horns, and there will most likely be a collection box passed around to help pay for the sport (as well as a few rounds at the tavern).

A lesser known celebration on this same day is Copperman’s Day, particular to Holland, and known especially in the print trade. And since Convivio Bookworks is a place that is a printshop at heart, it is a day we hold in high esteem. On the first Monday after Epiphany each year, print apprentices would be given the day off to work on their own projects, which they would later sell for a copper.

Last year, we printed an inaugural Convivio Bookworks Copperman’s Day print, and we’re planning one for this year, too. This year’s is a continuation of last year’s theme, inspired by a Christmas Revels reading first penned by Fra Giovanni Giocondo. It is said to have been written on Christmas Eve, 1513, and in his letter, Fra Giovanni encourages us to take heaven, to take peace, and to take joy. Because when you get right down to it, life deals us what it will and it is up to each of us to decide how we respond. Even in times of darkness, we can choose to take joy, and so last year’s print was just that message: Take Joy. This year, we’re working on Take Peace. I’m working in historic wood type, though, and so far I’m having a devil of a time finding the two Es I need to spell “peace,” at least if I want to stick to my original design plan. On top of that, I do not have the day off from work tomorrow, as the old Dutch coppermen of yore did on the Monday after Epiphany.

So be patient, our annual Copperman’s Day print may take a few extra days this year. Be that as it may, we do encourage other letterpress printers around the globe to take part in this old tradition that we see fit for revival. It’s all about loving what you do, and sharing it with others. It’s all about taking joy.

 

Image: Procession of the Plough on Plough Monday, an engraving from The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities by the Chambers Bros., Edinburgh, 1869.

 

St. Distaff’s Day

Distaff Women

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

The days of Christmastide stood outside of ordinary time, from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and clear through the Twelve Days of Christmas that followed, and now that Epiphany has passed, it is back to the humdrum workaday world. But we’ve been celebrating for two weeks now, and it’s not easy to shift gears so rapidly. This is where St. Distaff comes in.

Back when spinning occupied a great deal of time for most women, the distaff was no stranger to any of them. The distaff is a tool that is part of the process of spinning wool or flax into thread, and that is the first step toward weaving cloth and making clothing for the family. We tend to think of spinning wheels when we picture someone spinning, but the spinning wheel was a later invention; it is the distaff and spindle that were the necessary tools prior to the spinning wheel.

As for St. Distaff? Well, the odd thing about St. Distaff’s Day is that saints are people but there is no St. Distaff. The day’s name just comes out of centuries of tradition, and it has one purpose: to mark the beginning of getting back to work after Christmas. Not that much work got done on St. Distaff’s Day. Quite the contrary. What typically happened was this: Women would get to work at their spindle and distaff, and the men would sneak up and make a valiant attempt at lighting the flax on fire. But the women were smart and kept buckets of water nearby. The flax set aflame was usually quickly extinguished (and more often than not, the men got a good soaking, too). This was the fun and mischief of St. Distaff’s Day.

If it seems unfair that the women had to get to work the day after Epiphany but not the men, worry not, for the men have their time with the first Monday after Epiphany, for then comes Plough Monday, their traditional return to work and to ordinary time. Plough Monday has its own fun and traditions.

And so let this day mark your return to ordinary time now that Christmastide has passed. If you can do something silly alongside the serious business of the day, all the better.

 

Image: Two fine women with distaffs in hand. A lithograph by Edouard Pingret from the book Pyrénées: Paysannes de la Vallé de Campan by René Ancely, 1834. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Plough Monday & Copperman’s Day

Copperman

Come tomorrow, the first Monday after Epiphany, we get another of the old agricultural post Christmas “get back to work” celebrations from England. This time, it’s the guys who are back to work with a ceremonial ploughing of the frozen ground on Plough Monday.

Truth be told, Plough Monday is not very much about work at all. It does, however, mark the day the lads return to ordinary time now that Christmas is passed, much like St. Distaff’s Day did for the lasses last week on January 7, the day after Epiphany. It is an old holiday rooted in the centuries that fell out of favor for some time but is seeing a bit of a revival again. You can be sure there was ale involved back in the old days. It was, as well, another big day for mummers and guisers performing street plays. It was perhaps their last hurrah for the winter, and the typical Plough Monday mummers play had the ever present theme of life and death and rebirth––cycles that are very present and familiar to those who are close to the land.

Mummers or not, the day did typically see the local men dressed so as to evoke the fool. The sillier the better and all topsy-turvy, with shirts on top of coats and all bedecked with ribbons, too… a remnant of that Feast of Fools atmosphere that permeates much of the Twelve Days of Christmas. One of the men would dress as an old woman: the Bessy, who perhaps again personifies the old hag of winter, the goddess in her wise crone stage. The men and Bessy would parade through the village with a finely decorated plough, raising a general ruckus of song and cheers and dances (some truly ancient and mysterious ones, like the Sword Dance) and the blowing of horns and the banging of drums, and always in procession, too, the collection box, into which folks were expected to drop a few coins for the Plough Monday merriment. Those who didn’t might have their front yards subjected to the plough. But this mischief was rare; most everyone gave a little something to the sport, and the celebration was, for the most part, a benign and happy one as it progressed through town.

The first Monday after Epiphany marks the date of another obscure holiday, this one from Holland: Copperman’s Day. Convivio Bookworks is, at heart, a print shop, so Copperman’s Day is rather close to our hearts, for it is a printer’s holiday. It was a day when printers’ apprentices got the day off to work on their own projects and to show off the printing skills they had learnt to date in the course of their apprenticeships. They would sell these printed works in exchange for a copper, hence the name, Copperman’s Day. It’s a Dutch tradition that seems fit for revival what with the current renewal of interest in letterpress (and the handmade in general), and perhaps we’re doing our part by beginning an annual Convivio Bookworks Copperman’s Day keepsake. Our inaugural Copperman’s Day print will, if all goes as planned, be available by nightfall on the holiday, or soon after. Here’s to new traditions!