Friday, January 02, 2009

St. Distaff's Day means work and play

Distaff Day is January 7th, the day after the feast of the Epiphany. It is also known as Saint Distaff's Day, since it was not really a holiday at all. In many European cultural traditions, women resumed their household work after the twelve days of Christmas. (Men didn't return to work until Plough Monday - go figure!)
The distaff, used in spinning, was the medieval symbol of women's work. Often the men and women would play pranks on each other during this day, as was written by Robert Herrick in his poem "Saint Distaffs day, or the Morrow After Twelfth Day":
Partly work and partly play
You must on St Distaff's Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fodder 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 Saint Distaff all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.
This mirthful observance recalls a time when spinning was the occupation of almost all women and girls during the intervals of other and more serious work, and while caring for children, cooking, minding livestock, etc. Spinning was so integral to a woman's workload, that in England and its colonies, spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman—the spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of male from that of female children—and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself.
Five hundred years ago, Chaucer classed this art among the natural endowments of the fair sex in his ungallant proverb:
'Deceit, weeping, spinning, God hath given
To women kindly, while they may live.'

It was admitted in those old days that a woman could not quite make a livelihood by spinning; but, says Anthony Fitzherbert, in his Boke of Husbandrie 'it stoppeth a gap,' it saveth a woman from being idle, and the product was needful. No rank was above the use of the spindle. Homer's princesses only had them gilt. The lady carried her distaff in her gemmed girdle, and her spindle in her hand, when she went to spend half a day with a neighbouring friend. The farmer's wife had her maids about her in the evening, all spinning.
Women still carry on this skill, some by necessity, and many by choice. As the picture below of a Romanian woman with her distaff and drop spindle shows, the tools of the trade have remained the same for centuries.
More recently, modern day fiber art & crafts groups have taken up St. Distaff's Day as a celebration of this ancient practice.
There is an excellent book, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, which goes into fascinating detail about the importance of women's work involving all aspects of cloth production in the greater economy.
Other sources for information about St. Distaff's Day:


Annette said...

I always enjoy your little bits of history. I had never heard of St. Distaff's day until today! Wonder if the boss will give me the day off?? =P

Shelby said...

I like learning about this history too.. I learned something.

always good.

Seven Trees said...


I love seeing how many holidays are based on agricultural traditions and the necessity of marking the changes of season.

Must have been a lot more fun than flipping through a calendar to know when to plant your taters or sharpen your plowshare ;)