Published: 18-03-2010, 04:49

St. Distaff’s Day

In pre-industrial EUROPE many of the agricultural and household chores that marked the turning of the seasons attached themselves to saints’ days. All across Europe, for example, people slaughtered animals and celebrated the harvest on St. Martin’s Day (see MARTINMAS). In ENGLAND folk tradition carried this tendency one step further, inventing St. Distaff’s Day to mark women’s return to work after the Christmas holiday.
St. Distaff’s Day fell on January 7, the day after Epiphany. On this day folk tradition advised women to return to the daily chores they had put aside during the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. Before the invention of factory-made cloth, the task of spinning constituted perhaps the most representative of all female chores. Women of all ages, ranks, and incomes spun thread. Thus, English folk tradition commemorated women’s return to work on the day after Epiphany by inventing a joke holiday called St. Distaff’s Day. There never was a saint named Distaff. The word “distaff” refers to one of the principal tools women used in spinning, a rod upon which flax or wool was tied and out of which thread was pulled. This tool was also known as a “rock,” hence the day was also known as “Rock Day.”
Although English custom encouraged women to return to work, men remained at liberty until PLOUGH MONDAY. This inequality became the subject of many Distaff Day customs, which encouraged a playful battle of the sexes rather than an earnest return to work. Robert Herrick’s (1591-1674) poem, “St. Distaff’s Day; or, the Morrow After Twelfth Day” records some of these practices:

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night.
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation [Chambers, 1990,1: 68].

Herrick shows that as women returned to their spinning, custom encouraged men to tease the women by setting fire to their flax or wool. This act in turn allowed women the pleasure of dousing the men with buckets of water. If Herrick’s account is accurate, it would seem that very little work was actually accomplished on St. Distaff’s Day (see also ST. KNUT’S DAY).