Today is Saint Distaff’s Day. There isn’t really such a person as Saint Distaff. It is a sort of unofficial holiday. Holidays are never long enough are they? You could always do with an extra day or so. Yesterday was Epiphany, the very end of Christmas and on Distaff Day women were meant to go back to their spinning. Spinning wool and flax was a terrifically important job. If no one spun any yarn or thread, there would be nothing to weave and no one would have anything to wear. An important piece of equipment needed for spinning is the distaff, a long pole that you tie the loose wool or flax to. Then you tease out the threads from the distaff and twist them using a spindle. This very important job fell to women. Women from all walks of life, from peasants to queens were expected to spend every spare moment spinning. The job is so strongly associated with women that an unmarried woman is referred to as a spinster; presumably because she had no husband to look after, she had plenty of time for spinning. Also in a family tree, your mother’s side of the family is the distaff side.
We only have to look at a couple of fairy tales to know how important spinning was. Sleeping Beauty falls into her hundred year sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle. Rumpelstiltskin has the gift of spinning straw into gold. In truth, fairy tales were probably kept alive from generation to generation by women telling stories to each other while they were spinning. It must have been awfully dull work and I can’t help noticing that a lot of the stories end up with the heroine being excused spinning for the rest of her life. In Sleeping Beauty, because it has been foretold that she will prick her finger; spinning is banned throughout the kingdom for years. As an aside, and because I’m interested in fairy tales, did you know that in the story on which Sleeping Beauty is based, ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ the princess is raped in her sleep by a passing king and gives birth to twins? One of the babies sucks a splinter of flax, which has been the cause of her enchanted sleep, from her finger and she wakes up.
There are several stories about a girl who lands in trouble because a parent had boasted about how good they were at spinning. Rumpelstiltskin is probably the best known. But there is also a story called ‘The Three Spinners’ which has several variants. It starts with a beautiful, but lazy girl who won’t spin. When the queen overhears her mother telling her off and the mother pretends that it is because her daughter is too good at spinning and might wear herself out. She is taken to the castle and given absolutely loads of flax to spin in return for marriage the queen’s son. Of course, she can’t but is helped by three kind but horribly deformed old ladies. In return they ask to be invited to her wedding. When they turn up at the feast, the king rudely asks the women why they are so ugly. (If you live in the UK, you know what it’s like when the Queen’s husband is a bit rude sometimes.) One of the women has a massive thumb, one has a pendulous lip and the third has a huge swollen foot. They reply that it is from years of spinning. The king forbids his new daughter-in-law from ever spinning again.
However, back to Saint Distaff’s Day. Although the women were supposed to go back to their spinning, the men in rural areas were not expected to go back to their work, ploughing, until the first Monday after Epiphany. As the first day after Epiphany rarely is a Monday, they had a bit of time hanging around making a nuisance of themselves. They would spend Distaff Day trying to set fire to the wool or flax that the women were trying to spin. The women would respond by pouring buckets of water over them. It seems that this was quite fun for everyone and probably a good way of easing oneself back into everyday work and getting a bit off a day off at the same time.
The men didn’t do a great deal of work on their first day after Christmas either. They had to wait until the Monday after Epiphany because they needed their ploughs to be blessed on the preceding day, Plough Sunday, before it was safe to make a start. As Plough Monday doesn’t fall on any particular date, we’ll tell you about it briefly here. It was the official start to the agricultural year. The men of the village would drag their plough around the village. Usually they were accompanied by musicians, a fool, who generally seems to have an animal’s tail, and an old woman, or a boy dressed as an old woman, called ‘Bessy’. Their purpose was to collect money from the residents. Failure to pay would result in you having your garden ploughed up.