Happy St. Distaff’s Day

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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.

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4 thoughts on “Happy St. Distaff’s Day

  1. Susan says:

    So here is a weird little tidbit about which night is actually Twelfth Night (from Wikipedia):

    “Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas.

    It is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking”.[1] However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night:[2] some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night.[2] One source of this confusion is said to be the Medieval custom of starting each new day at sunset[citation needed], so that Twelfth Night precedes Twelfth Day. In some cases the 25 December is the first day of Christmas, so therefore 5 January is the 12th day. It is erroneous to count the Christmas season as the 12 days after Christmas Day, making 6 January the Twelfth Day, as 6 January is the Epiphany, and church seasons do not overlap.

    A recent belief in some English-speaking countries holds that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a belief originally attached to the festival of Candlemas which celebrates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (2 February).[3]‘”

    I myself am one of those “January 5th is Twelfth Night” people, in part because January 6 is also the “old” Christmas (more from Wikipedia – “The original date of the celebration in Eastern Christianity was January 6, in connection with Epiphany, and that is still the date of the celebration for the Armenian Apostolic Church and in Armenia, where it is a public holiday.”) As you probably know, January 6, Epiphany, is also Three Kings’ Day in many Spanish-speaking countries.

    I always keep my Christmas decorations up until Twelfth Night, in part because, when my daughter was growing up, I did not want her to think of Christmas a merely a big blow-out day of gifts, but to get her to recognize that Christmas IS 12 days, and it does have meaning, even if you aren’t religious.

    (The knitted socks for Valentine’s Day – next post – are lovely, btw. It would take me 10 years of knitting to get that good…)

  2. Carol Ashdown says:

    For many years I worked as a Spinner and Weaver at Quarry Bank Mill, Styal, near Wilmslow, Cheshire. One year St Distaff’s Day fell on a closed day at the Mill so we did actually celebrate the day with a tea party and a cake. I do believe it was decorated with icing spindles, the event was lovely and it’s a pity it was not repeated. To any of the past or present staff who remember me, especially our previous “Boss” Val Bryant, all good wishes for 2014. Carol

  3. Hi All

    We were spinning on distaff day, evening to be precise. I’m really interested to see Carol’s response as I too used to spin at Styal in the Val Bryant era. We run Stockport Spinners -funnily enough in the Plough pub at Heaton Moor and it just happened to fall on that day as our meetings are the first Tuesday in the month. So Carol and any other local spinners are most welcome to bring wheels or spindles and join us on Feb 4th, March 4th or any other first Tuesday in the month.

    Happy Spinning
    Jude Beckett (ajlbeckett@tesco.net)

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