Plough Monday is the first Monday after Twelfth Night and is an ancient custom, the first written reference to “Plow Mundy” is dated 1378 in Durham.
Twelfth Night used to be celebrated on January 17th and so Plough Monday would be after that date but since adopting the new calendar, Twelfth night is celebrated on January 6th. A lot of traditional cunning folk however, still celebrate and perform their rites according to the old calendar.
It is the day when the first ploughing of the New Year takes place and used to be marked (and still is in some areas) by Plough Boys & Plough Girls dressing up and dragging the decorated plough through the village, singing and dancing and asking for money; much the same as is done on Guy Fawkes night. In some villages, the Plough Girls & Boys were known as Plough Witches & Plough Witch-Men. These were the farm labourers and workers of the local farms.
In years previous, the Witch-Men would paint their faces in white-lead, red-ochre and lamp-black and one of the Witch-Men would always dress up as a woman and carry a besom; she was quite often called “Bessie”. They would visit houses and ask for money that custom dictated was to be spent on ale that night; if the household was not forthcoming with the required donation, the Witch-Men or Plough Witches would plough up a strip of the garden at the front of the house!
As they danced from house to house, they would sing songs, one verse of such a Plough Monday song is:
“Look ye here and look ye there,
And look ye over yander,
And there you’ll see the old grey goose,
A smiling at the gander.”
The Plough-Witches were all disguised; they would dress in all manner of outfits with colourful ribbons attached to their clothes and hats and they always had their faces painted. Mostly, they painted them black but then the “Bessie” or man dressed as a female, would have a white face. They also had with them the Horsemen and carters and these would crack their whips as they danced through the streets.
According to legend, the Plough Monday rites originated in Worcestershire. The legend says that a man and a boy were ploughing when they heard an outcry in a nearby copse. They left their ploughing and went to investigate, whereupon they came across one of the Wee Folk crying that he had lost his pick. The ploughman found it for him, who then said that if they looked in a certain corner of the field that they were ploughing they would find their reward. Off went the ploughman and his boy and they found bread, cheese and cider which the ploughman ate but the boy refused as he had heard the tales of eating Eldritch food. Later, it became known as the Cake in the Furrow, where it became tradition to make offerings of food and drink in the fields at the start of the years ploughing. From then on it grew into the Plough Monday rites described above.
With so few working on the land now, it has become customary to bless the tools that are used for the garden to ensure a good harvest of herbs, vegetables and whatever else one relies on. For us at Wytchenwood, we bless the tools that we use to harvest our woods and herbs that we then use in our charms and Works of our Arte.
“The wisest thing, we suppose, that a man can do for his land
Is the work that lies under his nose, with the tools that lie under his hand.” Kipling
After everything has been blessed and made ready for a new year’s growing and harvesting, we celebrate the coming seasons with plenty of ale and cider.
Happy New Year!