Plough Monday: Jan 9

Since we have many religions, traditions, nationalities and faiths, it’s hard to keep up on ones that our own faith tradition do not fall under.

But as we delve into our new year, let us enjoy one tradition – maybe we can turn it towards multi-denomination: “Plough Monday” (In 2017: Jan 9), a tradition from England complete with dancing, a form of trick-or-treat, and costumes.

Can we history, heritage, and tradition-oriented sites start a new pre-season tradition?

Read on to learn more about how the new season might be blessed:

The medieval faithful people would bring their ploughs, seeds, and implements to church for blessings on the human labor and its tools for season to come. (Church of England, Seasons and Festivals of the Agricultural Year, p.597)

In the medieval period, when there was only one plough in each village, the village plough was brought into church for a blessing before ploughing began in Plough Monday.  By Victorian times, when many farms owned their own plough, a representative plough was brought into church and local farmers asked the Rector or Vicar to bless the plough.

ploughmondayAfter the blessing, the plough was traditionally pulled through the village led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ (a boy dressed as a woman).  The procession stopped at as many pubs and friendly houses as possible for revellers to demand drinks.  Pennies were also collected along the route.  Anyone not paying a penny was likely to find a furrow cut across their land by morning.  (Church of England, Diocese of Chester, “Plough Sunday”)

But why would men dress as a woman for this tradition?

It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the ‘Bessy’, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess (From Convivio Press)

(Note how the name Betsy and Bessy are similar in the two sources)

Here’s how our North American  Old Farmer’s Almanac described it:

The first Monday after Epiphany (January 6) was the day for the menfolk to return to work after the holidays – although no work was actually done on this day. Dressed in clean white smocks decorated with ribbons, the men dragged a plow (plough) through the village and collected money for the “plow light” that was kept burning in the church all year. Often men from several farms joined together to pull the plow through all their villages. … In the evening, each farmer provided a Plough Monday supper for his workers, with plentiful beef and ale for all.

plough

Dancing was always part of festivities. Plough Monday also had its own specialized version of Morris dancers, complete with disguised faces:

Molly dancing was performed by East Anglian farmworkers in the middle of winter. The style of dance we teach is therefore heavy, earthy and powerful, based on a simple “step-hop”, ideally danced in heavy work-boots. The original “ploughboys” blackened their faces as a disguise to escape recognition and the consequences of their mischievous actions.  (http://heritagealive.weebly.com/molly-dancing.html)

mollydancersIn the past, Molly dancers sometimes accompanied the farm labourers to dance and entertain for money. They blackened their faces with soot to disguise themselves so they could not be recognised by their future employers.

Molly dancing traditionally only appeared during the depths of winter and is regarded by many people as the East Anglian form of Morris. The dances are still performed today. (Text and photos of the Molly Dancers and decorated plough from: http://www.projectbritain.com/ploughMonday.htm. See the videos and descriptions of dances also seen on that page)

What can you do to celebrate the new ploughing (or plowing) season to come, at your site, with your visitors, and in your lives?

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2 Responses to Plough Monday: Jan 9

  1. Stacy Roth says:

    The celebration of Plough Monday has been alive and well in the Princeton, NJ area since 1993, when the Molly Dance group, “Handsome Molly,” was formed by Sue Dupre and Mary Zikos. The group presents skits and dances to the community every Plough Monday, and performs locally and around the country throughout the year. http://www.handsomemolly.com/index.html

  2. suedupre says:

    Greetings! I enjoyed reading your posting about Plough Monday and support your desire to raise awareness of this wonderful agricultural tradition. I’m a member of Handsome Molly, a New Jersey based molly dance team. We’ve celebrated Plough Monday for many years and will be out celebrating it in Princeton, NJ, on January 9. We’ll take our plough to be blessed at a local church and will then perform dances around Princeton. We’ll end up by going to a local homeowner’s house and demanding beer or money. I must confess that the residents will not be surprised because they are our friends and will invite us in for beer and hot cider and cookies and singing. You can hear a little bit about our celebration at https://www.acast.com/pulseoftheplanet/plough-monday—tradition. May you celebrate Plough Monday rowdily!

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