In old England, the first Monday after Epiphany was known as “Plough Monday”. Those were days when farming wasn’t considered an odd hobby for malcontents, but normal human life, working and keeping the ground from which man was made in the beginning. The Church and the farm were one, for “ora et labora” was still the Church’s philosophy and the work of common people was sanctified and honored among all.
On Plough Monday, the new agricultural year began. Farmers had their ploughs (i.e., animal-drawn walking ploughs, not state-subsidized GPS-guided John Deere mega-machines), blessed by the Church and celebrated the new year with games and feasting. One of the traditions, narrated eloquently (as always) by Washington Irving was the “Fool’s Plough Pageant”. A group of men would dress up and drag a plough though the village making a collection for some poor folk fit for charity. However, the pageant involved all sorts of silliness and fun as Irving relates:
Sherwood Forest is a region that still retains much of the quaint customs and holiday games of the olden time. A day or two after my arrival at the Abbey, as I was walking in the cloisters, I heard the sound of rustic music, and now and then a burst of merriment, proceeding from the interior of the mansion. Presently the chamberlain came and informed me that a party of country lads were, in” the servants’ hall, performing Plough Monday antics, and invited me to witness their mummery. I gladly assented, for I am somewhat curious about these relics of popular usages. The servants’ hall was a fit place for the exhibition of an old Gothic game. It was a chamber of great extent, which, in monkish times had been the refectory of the Abbey. A row of massive columns extended lengthwise through the centre, whence sprung Gothic arches, supporting the low vaulted ceiling. Here was a set of rustics dressed up in something of the style represented in the books concerning popular antiquities. One was in a rough garb of frieze, with his head muffled in bearskin, and a bell dangling behind him, that jingled at every movement. He was the clown, or fool of the party, probably a traditional representative of the ancient satyr. The rest were decorated with ribands and armed with wooden swords. The leader of the troop recited the old ballad of St. George and the Dragon, which had been current among the country people for ages; his companions accompanied the recitation with some rude attempt at acting, while the clown cut all kinds of antics.
To these succeeded a set of morris-dancers, gayly dressed up with ribands and hawks’-bells. In this troop we had Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the latter represented by a smooth-faced boy: also, Beelzebub, equipped with a broom, and accompanied by his wife Bessy, a termagant old beldame. These rude pageants are the lingering remains of the old customs of Plough Monday, when bands of rustics, fantastically dressed, and furnished with pipe and tabor, dragged what was called the “fool plough” from house to house, singing ballads and performing antics, for which they were rewarded with money and good cheer.
Thus, as Christmastide draws to a close, we wish you not only a Merry Christmas, but also a Happy New Year and a Merry Plough Monday.