Weather lore and blessing the plough

Snowdrop shoots defy the cold as the year turns.
Snowdrop shoots defy the cold as the year turns.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Another year dawns, and snowdrop tips have been spearing through the soil for a month now. But we mustn’t get carried away with thoughts of early spring, because the coldest part of winter still lies ahead.

In January the sea around Britain has lost the stored warmth that normally takes the sting out of cold winds. So there’s truth in this old saying, “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.”

Old weather lore suggests that February will be the coldest month. The Met Office expects that the rest of winter will be drier and cooler than last year, with alternating cold and mild periods.

While it’s difficult to be grateful for grim winter days, weather lore is firm on the subject: “In January if the sun appear, March and April will pay full dear. If January calends be summerly gay, it will be winterly until May.”

The coldest day of the whole year is supposed to be January 13, St Hilary’s Day. This belief arose when we were using the Julian calendar, which was abandoned in 1752. Adopting the revised Gregorian calendar brought us into line with Europe, although to achieve this we had to “lose” 11 days – allowing for that, the old St Hilary’s Day would equate to our January 24.

Bless the plough

The Sunday following Epiphany is Plough Sunday, when a special service used to be held to bless the communal plough that was kept in the church. From the fifteenth century there are records of “plough lights”, candles kept burning in church to bring a blessing on local farm workers.

That ended with the Reformation. But after the Second World War, the Royal Agricultural Society got together with the Church of England to revive old agricultural feasts like Plough Sunday. As a result, plough blessings were re-established in many rural parishes.

At Goathland, near Whitby, the village’s Plough Stots perform their traditional longsword dance at St Mary’s Plough Sunday service on the 11th. The following Saturday, January 17, is Goathland’s Day of Dance when all the village’s teams will perform.

While young men had fun on Plough Monday – pulling the plough through their village and demanding money for not ploughing up paths – women had their own custom on January 7.

This was St Distaff’s Day, the traditional time for women to start spinning again after Christmas. While the men tried to set fire to their piles of wool or flax, the women retaliated by soaking the men with buckets of water. The name St Distaff was a joke, a fake saint’s day and thus an unofficial holiday.

Spinning thread was a necessary task in the days when clothes, and even the cloth they were made from, were produced in the home. This was women’s work, and they had to spin in every spare moment, twisting thread from raw flax or fleece and passing it onto a spindle. Thread making was aided by the invention of the spinning wheel, a treadle-operated device that freed both hands to tease and twist.

The task gave us words we still know today: spinster, for an unmarried woman; and distaff (spindle), for the female side of a family.