history & philosophy · poetry · quotations · spinning · textiles as fine arts · textiles in literature

Texts & Textiles: St. Distaff’s Day

Partly work and partly play
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.

When Robert Herrick published these lines in 1648, “St. Distaff’s Day” was still a familiar “holiday”–a day of easing back into work after 12 days of Christmas rest and celebration. However, by the 19th century, the day and the work it heralds were antiquities. Chamber’s Book of Days (1869) has to define both the distaff itself, and the reason for day.   He writes

As the first free day after the twelve by which Christmas was formerly celebrated, the 7thof January was a notable one among our ancestors. They jocularly called it St. Distaff’s Dag, or Rock Dag, because by women the rock or distaff was then resumed, or proposed to be so. The duty seems to have been considered a dubious one, and when it was complied with, the ploughmen, who on their part scarcely felt called upon on this day to resume work, made it their sport to set the flax a-burning; in requital of which prank, the maids soused the men from the water-pails. […] This mirthful observance recalls a time when spinning was the occupation of almost all women who had not anything else to do, or during the intervals of other and more serious work—a cheering resource to the solitary female in all ranks of life, an enlivenment to every fireside scene. To spin—how essentially was the idea at one time associated with the female sex!

There’s something very wise about the way our ancestors moved back from play to work. Rather than making a cold switch from holiday to workaday moods, they allowed a transitional day, a day when some work would begin, but with a few pranks and no rush to accomplish very much.

Such a day only makes sense after a deep, long rest, and knowing that deep, real work will follow. Our culture that tends to muddle work and rest. More importantly, most of our rest is arbitrary, undertaken according to our own schedules, rather than a common season. Christmas is one of the very few exceptions to that arbitrariness, and for that reason, perhaps, as we settle back into classrooms and offices, check emails and return calls, we can still imagine the sense of reunion, return, and laughter of a St. Distaff’s Day.

Image source: Elihu Vedder, “Girl with a Distaff,” via Wikimedia Commons

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