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WITCHING THE PLOUGH ON PLOUGH MONDAYThe First Monday after Twelfth-Day

Costumed Christmas traditions are quite common throughout northern Europe, as well as in England and Scandinavia. In some regions, Holda, Percht and Bercht play a prominent part in them. Indeed, vivid visual descriptions of her may allude to a popular portrayal, perhaps as part of a seasonal festival or holiday drama. ...On Perchten nacht, the night before Epiphany, the young men of Salzburg dressed up in fantastic garb and leapt wildly in the fields, shouting in her honor. The higher the leap, the higher next year’s crop would grow. This behavior, called Perchtenlauf, “Perchta running,” was also customary in Tyrol. The raucous rabble of maskers marched along with jingling bells and resounding whip-cracks, entering houses, dancing and drinking, winding from village to village like the Wild Hunt itself. Such tumultuous masquerades were thought to be beneficial to the crops; a bad harvest would be attributed to omission of the Perchtenlauf..A similar costumed tradition survived among the British until the early twentieth century. In some parts of rural England, the first Sunday and Monday after Twelfth-Day are still known as Plough Sunday and Plough Monday, marking the start of the agricultural year with the resumption of farmwork after the Twelve Days of Christmas. These days were the occasion of special ceremonies reminiscent of the Æcerbót; the principle purpose of Plough Sunday being the blessing of the farmhands in church, dedicating their work to the service of God, so that the people may eat. The primary feature of Plough Monday is an annual procession performed by bands of brightly clad young men, dragging a decorated plow from house to house. In northern England, the plow was driven in a procession made up of as many as forty people. Rustic youth called Plough-stots (from an old word meaning ‘steer’ or ‘young ox’) dragged the plow. They wore white shirts on the outside of their jackets with bright-colored ribbons as sashes across their chests and knotted on their caps. Sometimes they performed a skit or dance, accompanied by fiddle and flute music with the recitation of set verses, which as a rule were little more than introductions of the performers, each given a distinctive name. Regarding Christmas customs in England, John Brand in his Observations on Popular Antiquities (1777) wrote:.“In the North there is another Custom used at or about this Time, which if I mistake not, was antiently observed in the Beginning of Lent: The Fool Plough goes about, a Pageant that consists of a Number of Sword Dancers, dragging a Plough with Music, and one, sometimes two, in a very antic Dress; the Besy, in the grotesque Habit of an old Woman, and the Fool, almost covered with Skins, a hairy Cap on, and the Tail of some Animal hanging from his Back.” (p. 176).Recorded verses include up to seven named characters. A man dressed as an old woman known as Bessy, accompanied by a man dressed in animal-skin and tail known as the Tommy or Fool, commonly led the rabble through the town collecting money for drink or charity. These performers, often masked, black-faced or dressed as women, followed the procession. In some versions, the Tom or Fool entered first and drew a circle with his sword. He was then introduced by Bessy who called on the others in turn, each walking round the circle to music; then came an elaborate dance with careful formations, which degenerated into a fight. At Whitby, the formations consisted of six armed men, who began their dance slowly and simply, gradually becoming more rapid and complex, until near the close, a series of well- planned moves resulted in a hexagon of plaited swords at the center of the ring, so firmly interlaced that one of the performers held it aloft without it coming undone. As they danced, masked Toms performed antics for the crowd, while men dressed in women’s clothing, called Madgies, rattled canisters soliciting money. They paraded from town to town for two or three days in this manner collecting coins. Prior to the Reformation, the aim of the collection was to raise funds for Plough Lights, wax candles lit by husbandmen during the Plough Mass. Remarkably, John Brand himself adds: .“With regard to the Plough drawn about on this Occasion; I find the Monday after Twelfth Day, called antiently (as Coles tells us) Plough Monday, ‘when our northern Plough Men, beg Plough Money to drink’ …so in hard Frosts our Watermen drag a Boat about the Streets, begging Money,” (p. 178)..In England, as on the Continent, we find such processions associated with both a plow and a ship, the general purpose of which seems to have been to spread agricultural luck insuring a good harvest. According to one nineteenth century observer: “when they are well paid, they raise a huzza; where they get nothing they shout ‘Hunger and starvation!’” Ceremonies of this kind are recorded throughout the eastern half of England from Norfolk to Northumbria and are best documented in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. In Cambridgeshire, Plough Monday ceremonies known as Plough Witching were observed until the early 1900s. References to these traditions date back to the late 1400s and are probably related to the German legends of Frau Holda and Perchta. .In A Compendiouse Treetise Dyalogue of Dives and Pauper, a folio printed by Richard Pynson in 1493, among superstitions censured at the beginning of the year was the “ledyng of the Ploughe aboute the Fire as for gode begynnyng of the yere that they shulde fare the better alle the yere followyng.” .Morris or Moorish Dancing, which traditionally takes place at Whitsun or Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, may be related to this tradition. William Hutchinson in A View of Northumberland (1778), Vol. II. p. 18, speaking of costumed sword-dancers at Christmas, remarks: .“Others, in the same kind of gay attire, draw about a Plough, called the Stot Plough, and, when they receive a gift, make the exclamation Largess! but if not requited at any house for their appearance, they draw the Plough through the Pavement and raise the ground of the front in furrows. I have seen twenty men in the yoke of one Plough.” .Some scholars believe these customs were brought into the Danelaw in the ninth century..

From “Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology” by William P. Reaves (2018)

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