Distaff Day

Distaff Day

January 7th (day after Epiphany)

Lady and servant both spinning

Distaff Day, or St. Distaff’s Day, is an obscure and faded custom that has rather a bit more weight behind it that one might expect. The day is observed most often on January 7th, the day after Epiphany, the last day of the winter holidays. Less commonly, Distaff Day falls on the first Tuesday after Epiphany, being known as Distaff Tuesday in keeping with Plough Monday. And that reveals the core of the tradition.

Both days are when work is resumed after the holiday season. Both days mark the restoration of the normal order of things. In modern times, Plough Monday remains self-explanatory because most people know what a plow is and what it does and because it is still in use as such. Few people could identify a distaff other than a vague idea that it has something to do with spinning. Almost nobody remembers a time when this tool was so associated with perpetual women’s work that the word became an adjective meaning “of or concerning women”.

The distaff in use

So there is the essence of both observances. Plough Monday is when the men go back to work in the fields — after a good deal of ale, pageantry and silly costumery. Distaff Tuesday (which is how I knew the day when I was small and imbibing my grandmother’s odd views of the world) is when women’s work resumes. There is hardly any ritual to the day, certainly no drinking. It is barely even a return to work as there is rarely a real break in that endless flow.

The original idea comes from a widespread superstition about the ill-luck of doing work on holy days. In Northern Europe, the Midwinter festivities were dedicated to motherhood generally and specifically to what passed for a Mother Goddess in varying regions — Holda, Perchta, Berta, Frau Holle and a number of others. If these were not all one idea, they all had similar traits. They were old and chimerical, being loving and lovely at times and terribly destructive at others. They flew around with actual hell-hounds in a horrifying wild hunt — to gently gather up the lost souls of little children dead in infancy. They were generally cruel to men but caring to women, often serving as midwives. They were very protective of the weak, especially children. Being tied to women’s concerns, being “distaff”, meant that to properly honor them was to set aside your labors — which were their labors as well. The one thing that women did constantly but that could be set aside for more than a few hours without causing bodily discomfort was spinning, using a distaff. So during the dark days of the year, the days dedicated to these distaff deities, women stopped spinning and set the distaff aside. Thus when the holidays ended, women picked up the distaff and set about the endless task of turning animal and plant fibers into yarn.

There is, I think, significance in the boisterous levity of Plough Monday compared to the almost forgotten silence of Distaff Day. Even the timing is of note. Plough Monday can happen as much as seven days after the close of the holiday season, and even at that point it is a celebration in preparation for the beginning of men’s work in the fields. Men don’t do work on Plough Monday. They don’t do work for quite a while after Plough Monday. However, Distaff Day is bang on the next day after the disruption of the holiday season is cleared away (by women, of course). It is not a celebration. It is not prefatory. Women’s work can’t wait for seven, ten, twenty days to resume. On Distaff Day, women do not celebrate; they pick up the endlessly spinning distaff and get down to the hard work of making up for the lost time of the holiday season.

Yes, that was a bit bitter. But then again, so is women’s work. So is being distaff.

All the ladies at their work

Distaff Day is now largely forgotten (except in the minds of a few very old Irish women). This is partly because the traditions were always tied more closely to female deities (gasp), and as such viewed with deep suspicion for the entirety of European history. Our very languages are derived from the long time since goddesses were venerated. We have few words to reverently express distaff ideas.

But also, women do not spin much anymore. This endless hand task was consigned to machinery early in the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, textile production was the Industrial Revolution. Quite suddenly women were relieved of this hand craft, though not of much of the rest of women’s work. Notably, cooking and cleaning and care work have not much been automated — not they can’t be but because it was thought that there was less profit to be made in most women’s work. No prestige goods to sell anyway. The production of things, once nearly exclusively women’s work, has been taken out of the home so that household things must be bought and profits can therefore accrue. What remains of household labor is largely non-productive, or rather produces no thing that can be sold at a profit over the costs of labor. It is largely only labor, repetitive labor, and it is devalued relative to labor that can produce profits — largely the purview of men. 

One should note, however, that profits are yet squeezed out of even this care work. It is still devalued and still distaff; there are few men involved and laborers are very poorly paid. But a household can be run almost entirely without direct household labor. Indeed, most are in these days of commodification of Every Last Thing. The irony is that in this economy women do distaff work for wages — usually benefitting women of higher socio-economic class — and struggle to keep their own home functioning because their wages and time are insufficient for the household work they can no longer do for themselves. Even more ironic is that spinning by hand — once denigrated but necessary drudgery from which no woman could ever escape — is now a cherished hobby, largely of the privileged set and largely non-productive in the sense that textile needs are still bought as finished products. Hobby crafts are mostly just frippery. So if a woman is picking up her distaff today, it’s because she wants to — and because she has the leisure and means to do so.

And on that happy note I think I’ll sign off, wishing you all a happy Distaff Day.

This is not a distaff.

© Elizabeth Anker 2021