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This week I learned of another old English tradition, St Distaff’s Day — the day after Epiphany.

While there is no St Distaff — a facetious name — January 7 was the day when women returned to spinning wool, flax or other fibres after the twelve days of Christmas.

A distaff is a ‘roc’ or ‘rock’ — a rod or dowel — used in spinning. It was used before spinning wheels were invented. It holds the unspun fibres and keeps them untangled. Wikipedia has an excellent entry with ancient illustrations of distaffs.

January 7 is also known as Distaff Day or Roc Day.

As spinning was a female occupation, the English language has two words emanating from it: spinster (never-married woman) and distaff (referring to the matrilineal branch of a family, e.g. ‘distaff half’ for ‘wife’). A distaff race means that all the horses running are female.

Breathing in books has a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), which he wrote for January 7. It involves a custom of:

high jinks in which men and women engage in a battle of the sexes with the men trying to steal away and burn the women’s flax while the women respond by trying to throw water over the men (not much fun in January in my opinion!). However, [Steve] Roud [author of The English Year] points out that other, later, sources all seem very similar and vague and it seems likely that they all used Herrick’s poem as their sole source on the tradition.

This is Herrick’s poem:

St. Distaff’s Day or the Morrow After Twelfth Day

Partly work and partly play,
Ye must on S. Distaff’s day
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the maids a spinning go,
Burn the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware,
That ye singe no maiden-hair.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give S. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation.

In closing, the Monday after Epiphany is Plough Monday, which sometimes coincides with St Distaff’s Day, depending on the calendar year.

Tomorrow: More Plough Monday traditions

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