Saint Distaff's Day, or the morrow after Twelfth Day

PARTLY work and partly play
Ye must on Saint Distaff's day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fodder them.
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-hair.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give Saint Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night
And next tomorrow every one
To his own vocation.

Allen Tate (1899-1979)

This song for the feast day of St Distaff reflects what folklorist Charles Kightly called a jocular canonization of an important household tool.

The poet encourages people to ease back into their customary occupations, making January 7 the equivalent of a modern half day. The day was meant for people to slowly make their way back into the daily work routines. Sounds like a good idea to me and if you're lucky enough to be working you might want to run this idea by the boss. It was celebrated in England the day after Epiphany. After the twelve day Yuletide on the 13th day, January 7 was Saint Distaff's Day.

Now there really never was a Saint Distaff and truth be told distaff is an older word for spindle on which wool or flax was wound in the process of spinning. The use of the word dates from the fourteenth century and was a type of women's work or occupation. So much so, that the word became a term distaff side for symbolization of the female sex and the female genealogy of her family. Since there was no real St. Distaff and because there was no real need for anything special to wind the thread around just about any old rock might do so January 7th is also called Rock Day.

In the sixth line flax is a fiber from the plant for which thread is spun which was used to make linens and fine writing paper. Tow is the coarse part of the flax which was prepared for spinning and plackets in the next line are slit like openings through an apron like garment for reaching into pockets or to fasten garments underneath.


Public Domain text taken from the Poet’s Corner: