Jottings in January

"There are two seasonal diversions that can ease the bite of any winter. One is the January thaw. The other is the seed catalogs"

Hal Borland

January, for most of us, provides an opportunity for wiping the slate clean and beginning again. Many of us make resolutions in order to better ourselves, hoping that we improve our lives. Gardeners begin the new year by making plans for the next growing season, taking into account the successes and failures of the past season. Our holidays are now over, and we begin the task of plotting and figuring out just how many new plants we can fit into our gardens.

In the past, though, January still meant additional festivities, increasing the amount of time for merriment and frivolity before time came for returning to work. The harvest was over, all that could be done had been done, so why not enjoy some measure of fun? Today, most of these Anglican fests are a mere memory - though in some areas, vestiges of these days are celebrated.

Twelfth Night was an important day in the New Year. An integral component of this Jan. 6 holiday was wassailing. Now we think of wassail as a spicy cider spiked drink, but it was actaully an elaborate ceremony of the New Year. To wassail was to drink to one's health and prosperity. 'Was-hail' meant be whole or be of good health - and it was important that someone drank to your health. In some areas, wassailers carried boxes decorated with Advent figures and greenery. If you contributed to the wassailer ( a coin or two) you would be offered a leaf, berry or flower, which was considered to be a good luck charm.

The Wassail Bowl from these times was a complicated drink of brandy, cider, beaten eggs, roasted apples and cream - not for those today watching their weight or cholesterol! It was an ancient belief that apples were a cure-all (an apple a day keeps the doctor away) so it is not surprising that they were included in a potion for one's health.

Not only people were wassailed, however. It was important to wassail the trees to ensure that they would be fruitful in the coming year, and to protect them from evil. Bonfires were often set in the woods, and wassailers drank to the trees, using the following refrain:

"Wassail the trees that they may bear

Full many an apple and many a pear,

Wassail, wassail all over the town

Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown.

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree

With the wassailing bowl we will drink."

Twelfth Night, or the Epiphany, may be familiar to some of us, if only the date until which we keep up our Christmas Tree. But there were two other holidays directly following Twelfth Night that were celebrated by rural people in the British Isles. Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, was a special day for farmers. Ploughs were decorated and paraded through the streets, and often the ploughs were blessed. Some participants blackened their faces to disguise themselves and sought donations from each house. If a household did not contribute to the ploughman, they might find their front yard or even their front step plowed up! In some areas, Morris Dancers performed a play on this day, with an elaborate sword dance in which a "fool" is killed and then brought back to life. One interpretation to this ritual could be that the old year is ending and giving way to the new - with spring coming up out of winter. Food for this day included salt meat, cheese, bread and hard cider or beer. Some claim that this is the ancestor of the Ploughman's Lunch so popular today in English Pubs. This was certainly a day when the hard work of the farmer was appreciated and celebrated.

Plough Monday was a mostly male event, given that farmers were almost exclusively men. Women's hard work had to be given equal time, and it was on St. Distaff's Day. The noted herbalist Adelma Simmons claims this holiday was the Tuesday after Ploughman's Day. However, every other source I have found puts St. Distaff's Day as the day after Twelfth Night, or Jan. 7. St. Distaff was not a real saint, but distaff refers to the spinning device that women might use in their creation of yarn from sheep's wool or linen from flax. So women and their labors were noted on this day - the spinning of flax and the weaving of wool. Apparently, dousing each other with water and burning flax were the way the ladies of those days got their kicks! The following is from Herrick in his Hesperides:

Partly work, and partly play,

Ye must on S. Distaff's day:

From the plough soone free your teame,

Them come home and fother them.

If the maides a spinning goe,

Burne the flax, and fire the tow;

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.

Ancient customs and rituals are often a comfort to people, a connection to the past and a hope for the future. Traditions such as these brought people together, especially important during the long winter season. They also were a celebration of their lives, and a reminder of the community to which they were all connected. Perhaps they were able to return to their work with a renewed vigor and sense of purpose, and enter the new year on a positive note. 

Here's to 2010 and a season of renewal -

Karen