In centuries past, January 7th, the day following Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, was known as St. Distaff’s Day. It was not really a holiday, nor is there really a “St. Distaff”. But the marking of this day by common people indicates the importance of spinning in the days before the industrial revolution. The distaff, or “rock”, was the medieval symbol of women’s work. Year round, spinning was a never-ending chore. During the Christmas season, however, both men and women took a break from many chores during the 12 days of the holiday.
But on January 7, the festivities were officially ended, and women would resume their daily round of household tasks. Men, however, did not resume ploughing until Plough Monday, when their ploughs were blessed. That left young men with time to play pranks on the girls, as described by a poem by Robert Herrick. But whereas women would recommence spinning on Distaff Day, the men did not return to the plough until after Plough Monday when their ploughs had been blessed.
“You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.”
So St Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, as it was sometimes called, was a final opportunity for some playful high jinks,with the lads setting fire to the flax and in return, the maids soaking the men from the water-pails… Life might have been difficult during the middle ages, but there was still some room for fun.