Curious questions: Why do we take down Christmas decorations on January 6? (And why it really should be 5)


Our homes never look as good as they do throughout the holiday season, so why do we take down the Christmas decorations on January 6th? After all, we could just leave them for a few more weeks, couldn’t we? Martin Fone investigates.

With Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Saturday, for some it is possible to extend the festive break until January 4e. The prospect of returning to work after such a long break can be daunting and a bit depressing.

In the Middle Ages, the Christmas holidays were even longer. It wasn’t until the start of Epiphany – a celebration marking the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus – that a return to work was even reluctantly considered.

In many countries, the twelfth night is the evening of the first day of Epiphany, January 6.efrom the evening of Boxing Day.

Not so in England, however. Our twelfth night of Christmas falls on January 5efor the Church of England includes Christmas Eve itself in its reckoning.

Whatever the day, why is it time to remove the decorations? Well, it’s the hangover of an old belief that tree spirits lived in the holly and ivy that were used to mark the holiday season. Their release at the end of the Christmas period increased the likelihood of bountiful harvests and plentiful food supplies.

Along with Christmas and Easter, Epiphany is one of the three main feasts in the Church calendar and to this day is marked by holidays, feasts, gifts and, for the brave, icy dips in the rivers and lakes of Eastern Europe. In Spain, it is also the day when gifts are given: it is called Dia de los Reyes Magos (literally ‘Three Wizard Kings Day’, which immediately sounds much more exciting than ‘Epihany’), with gifts reminiscent of gold, frankincense and myrrh given in homage to the infant Jesus. And it’s all done as the English-speaking world has long been back behind its desks – although that hasn’t always been the case in Britain.

Since at least the end of the 15e century, it was not until the first Monday after Epiphany that English farm laborers would return to work, their first task being to plow the land in preparation for the spring harvest. This day was known as Plow Monday, which they saw as a time to celebrate enthusiastically and have fun, an alternative and more attractive form of soft introduction.

“Not surprisingly, the procession was an excuse for the consumption of large quantities of beer”

While the festivities associated with Plow Monday were widespread in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia, they were less commonly seen elsewhere, leading some to speculate that their origins are even older, possibly dating back to Danish occupation of the region.

The evening before, plows were brought to the church to be blessed. A flame, the light of the plow, was lit and would continue to burn throughout the year to bring good luck to the plowmen and workers. An inscription in the Church of St Agnes in the Norfolk village of Cawston gives some idea of ​​the aspirations behind the proceedings; ‘God send the plow and send us beer now…’.

On Plow Monday itself, a decorated plow, real or a replica, was dragged through the village by groups of young men wearing elaborate costumes, adorned with ribbons, jewels and even horse brass. Upon arriving at a house, some of the men, known as Plow Stotts in Yorkshire and the North East, Plow Bullocks or Jacks in the East Midlands and Plow Witches in East Anglia, would knock on the door and ask for a contribution in money to help keep the plow light and supplement the incomes of the poor and needy in the area. Any amount of money given would be given to a man dressed as an old woman, “the Bessy”.

In some parts of the country, the procession was joined by a straw bear, dancers, known as “Molly Dancers”, and musicians. Troupes of mimes performed a special plow game. Although there were regional variations, the play, a thwarted love story, usually ended with a fight between a “lady” and a clown or fool, her death and rebirth under the care of a charlatan.

Unsurprisingly, the procession was an excuse for the consumption of large quantities of beer, washed down with special dishes. In East Anglia, attendees enjoyed plow pudding, a kind of boiled pudding with a top made from suet dough and filled with pork sausage meat, bacon, onions, sage and sugar. It was the antithesis of fast food as it took about three and a half hours to cook.

The Reformation sowed the seeds for the decline of Plow Monday celebrations. In 1538, Henry VIII forbade the lighting of luminous plows in churches and Edward VI forbade the “conjuration of plows”. In addition to running counter to Protestant zeal, the minatory nuances of the procession may have contributed to its downfall.

“Women, especially those who were unmarried, worked at the spinning wheel, making cloth. Indeed, this work with single women was so synonymous that it gave rise to the term single.

The plow wasn’t just for show, as a farmer who refused to put his hand in his pocket discovered in 1810. At the Derby assizes, he claimed outraged Plow Monday processors had dragged their plow on his lawn and drove off, causing damage worth £20. He was not the only one over the years to receive this treatment.

Others reluctantly paid like a grumpy correspondent from the Nottingham reviewwhose letter, published on January 14, 1823, complained that the Plow Bullocks bypassed “the peaceful inhabitants of the quarter” and demanded money “with as little ceremony as the tax collector”.

The transition from a predominantly agrarian to an industrial economy further accelerated the ceremony’s fall from grace, although there are records of Plow Monday celebrations, usually confined to displays of ‘Molly Dancers’, until the 1930s. It took the folk revival movement of the 1960s and 1970s to bring about a revival of the tradition.

While the men worked the land, the women, especially those who were unmarried, worked at the spinning wheel, making cloth. Indeed, this work with single women was so synonymous that it gave rise to the term celibate. They returned to work the day after the start of Epiphany, January 7eor St Distaff’s Day as it was called.

Search the list of canonized saints and you won’t find one named Quenouille. However, a distaff was an important tool used in the earliest process of fabric making, the spinning of wool or linen into yarn. It was used to hold wool or linen so the spinner could easily reach it or keep it out of the way as they lay in the yarn, often tucked into the waistband to leave both hands free or worn as a ring on your finger. The cod canonization of this tool gave special significance to the day.

For the men, always idle, however, the day of Saint-Quennoiserie provided the occasion for japes and more amusement. The lyric and ecclesiastical poet, Robert Herrick, included in his Hesperides (1648) a short poem titled Saint Quenouille or the day after the twelfth day in which he describes the reception that returning spinners might face; ‘If the maids have a spinning-goe/ burn the flax and pull the tow:/ scorch their paws, but beware/ that you don’t burn maiden-haire’.

Obviously, St Distaff’s Day was a day of mischief. It’s tempting to think that the women, frantically trying to keep their precious linen from being consumed by the flames, would throw a few well-directed buckets of water at their attackers to cool their spirits.

Perhaps we should take inspiration from the book of our ancestors and see returning to work as a cause for celebration rather than a grim acceptance. It could well be felt!

Martin Fone’s 50 Most Curious Questions are now available.

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