It is good to heed old customs, or at least be aware of them, as ancient wisdom from yesteryear can have a beneficial impact on each of us today. One of my favourite customs is the tradition of Plough Monday.
Here’s an outline of the Plough Monday tradition, its history, and its relevance to us today, and here’s a way of celebrating it, wherever you are, in a simple and meaningful way.
Plough Monday was usually celebrated on the first Monday after Epiphany (6 January), and in some areas its observance continues, and so Plough Monday this year is on Monday, 7 January 2019. Are you ready?
References to Plough Monday go back more than six hundred years in the UK to the Christian medieval period, and the event marks the start of the agricultural year, the resumption of farm work after the Christmas period, and the looking forward to springtime.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
W H Davies
By the 1400s, the event was dedicated to raising funds for local parishes — boundaries of which were determined by church location. Groups of qualified ploughmen formed plough guilds which had a plough light, continually lit in the local church, as a way of asking for God’s blessings on the fields, in much the same way we might light a candle or votive light for a special intention in church today. Part of the funds then collected on Plough Monday were used to help to keep these candles lit throughout the year. Some priests also blessed ploughs on that day.
However, there are some who view the event as a continuance of some earlier pre-Christian ritual marking the end winter (or a celebrating of the winter solstice) and the slow march of time to lighter evenings and warmer days, and it was celebrated to ensure much-needed agricultural fecundity.
Later, Plough Monday was an opportunity for farm workers (never adequately paid, then) to seek an extra income – by putting on plays for a fee, organising molly dancers to dance as a hat went onlookers around for donations, or by dressing someone as a ‘straw bear’ and who would be paraded through the streets as money was collected from passers-by.
No one knows when that latter tradition started but a newspaper report in 1882 wrote: ‘…he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.’
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
Mary Oliver. Sleeping In The Forest
The straw bear event eventually died out in many areas, but was revived in 1980 in Whittlesea/Whittlesey, near Peterborough in England, and still continues. [More details here.]
And, over the last few years Churches and other faith groups have (re-)discovered the necessity and benefit of taking time to ponder upon the earth and its resources, our use of them, to amend our ways where we have been negligent of the Earth’s bounty, and/or to give gratitude, something which Pagans, Celts, Druids and other have been faithfully celebrating, unbroken. A service was held at Thaxted Church a couple of years ago to the end. [See here.]
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Right Reverend Stephen Cottrell, said: ‘Plough Sunday offers an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the earth itself, a relationship we too easily take for granted – but also to pray for all those who work on the land and to give thanks for God’s provision.’
And so, what can we do?
I think the answer is some kind of small ritual for thanksgiving (or of repentance for the misuse of the Earth’s resources but finishing on a positive by giving thanks) and take our example from that ancient tradition of the plough light.
Perhaps on Plough Monday (7 January 2019) we might light a candle as we sit down to our evening meal, spend a minute in silent meditation, and then enjoy a hearty meal with gratitude. Ofcourse, it doesn’t have to be meal orientated. You might like to light a candle and say a verbal prayer, or take time to verbalise your gratitude to the Source of All, or recite some apt poetry (and two poems are indented above that you might like to use).
How you celebrate the event is many and varied, but there is something wonderful in that timeless continuity of lighting a plough light (candle) if only for twenty minutes or so, knowing that others have done so down the ages. And, ofcourse in some mysterious way we can be blessed by entering into that candle-light ritual, and ritual opens up a liminal doorway to the Other, to potential, to empowerment, and more, and takes us ‘out’ of ‘mechanical time’ into the sacred.
Wishing you a blessed Plough Monday, wherever you are.
[The header photo of the straw bear is used by kind permission of Kev747 at en.wikipedia]