I’m sure you know that it is traditional to remove Christmas decorations by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January, although it is still debated as to whether you have to take them down before the 6th or on the 6th to avoid inviting bad luck into the house. I’m still unsure which is right.

What you might not know is that the day after is St Distaff’s Day. St Who? I hear you cry. Well, Distaff is no-one and there is no such saint. It actually refers to the cleft stick used by spinners to hold yarn in place and appeared this country in around 1505. St Distaff’s Day was symbolic of women resuming their regular household chores after the 12 days of festive fun. Spinning was an essential skill, and women would spin most evenings, turning raw wool and flax into thread to be used for clothing, footwear, bedding, baskets and for mending all of the above.

St Distaff’s Day precedes the more well-known Plough Monday. This is the first Monday after the Epiphany when the men of the household would resume their labouring duties. In the days before mechanisation, the plough was the most important piece of farming equipment that the community would rely on to enable them to plant crops and feed themselves for the coming year.

In Mediaeval times, small villages would have just one plough to be shared by residents, and a ploughman would carve out each person’s plot in the ‘ridge and furrow’ method of open agriculture. Once the autumn harvest was complete this revered piece of equipment would usually be stored in the local church for the winter. A candle, or ‘plough light’, would be kept permanently burning to protect the plough from any malevolent crop-ruining spirits that might be lurking about.

Then, on Plough Monday this sacred machine would be brought out of hibernation to mark the start of the new agricultural year. It would be blessed by the priest, and the good folk would ask the Lord to grant them a successful growing year ahead. Men would dress up in costumes, similar to that of Mummers or Morris Dancers, and then parade to music through the village, knocking on doors asking for alms. Anyone who declined to give a few coins would likely find that overnight, their front path had been ploughed up. The plough posse would end up at the local inn and spend the rest of the day feasting, drinking and having a merry old time.

Today, it is not uncommon to see this tradition marked on the Sunday before Plough Monday, which is known as Plough Sunday, and I am a bit confused as to when or if one came before the other. Some sources suggest the plough was blessed on the Sunday, and then the parade would take place the next day. Other sources have the events happening on the same day, whether it be the Sunday or the Monday.

The custom has disappeared from many places, but not all, and in our region is marked most notably in Ripon Cathedral (which this year takes place on 14th January), and in my dad’s old stomping ground, Goathland (7th January).

In fact, I was looking at one of my dad’s books, ‘Yorkshire Days’, in which he mentions Plough Sunday and Monday, and also the ‘Goathland Plough Stots’. The Goathland tradition is to bless the plough on the Sunday after the Epiphany, and then follow that up the following Saturday with their ‘Annual Day of Dance’, a traditional sword dance practised by the Goathland ‘Stots’. ‘Stot’ is an old Yorkshire word for the oxen or bullocks that pulled the plough, and therefore was given to the men who pulled it through the village during the celebrations.

As I was writing this column, the words to ‘There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza’ popped into my head. As a young child, I used to be very confused as to why Liza would suggest that Henry mended his holey bucket with straw when the buckets I knew were made of plastic or metal. But it has only now dawned on me that back in the day they’d be made from wood, clay or some kind of woven yarn or straw, and repairs would likely have been with whatever natural material was to hand.

Unless you can think of a better explanation?

Contact me via my webpage at countrymansdaughter.com, or email gazette@gazetteherald.co.uk