The darkest nights of the year are not around Midwinter. No, the darkest nights follow the day that all the holiday lights are packed away. For several nights you will be barking your shins and stubbing your toes, wondering why you can’t see anything anymore. This condition is made worse by the general lack of sunlight because all of New England is under a thick layer of cloud. There is no twilight before sunrise. There is hardly any change to the darkness until almost two hours after the sun is up. The darkness then swallows the day again about an hour before sunset which makes finding a black car in the employee lot somewhat of a challenge. (I’ve been unlocking it remotely to see where the tail-lights come on.) The only saving grace of all this cloud is that it’s been relatively warm, hovering around freezing by day and only cooling a bit at night.
But yesterday afternoon, a breeze picked up, blew all the fog and murk away and allowed the sun to shine weakly through the clouds. There was even a bit of moonlight, eerie through the hazy clouds, but all the more interesting for that. Today, the skies are as blue as we get in winter. There is that filmy haze that washes the color out, but no solid white. The breeze has dropped off also. It is a calm winter’s day. However, the temperature also dropped off… it’s now closer to 0°F than 0°C. Fortunately, the sun is low enough to shine into the windows, so there is a bit of heating to counter the frigid air.
I was listening to someone talk about the energy woes in Europe. She described having to consult real-time cost data before deciding to turn on appliances. Apparently there are huge swings in pricing from one hour to the next, predictably highest when the grid is most stressed and lowest when everyone is asleep. So you don’t want to run the clothes-dryer, for example, when the costs are peaking. She also talked of having to turn down the thermostat (because gas? I wasn’t sure how the electric grid interacted with her heating) and wear more clothes. I was listening to this as I was doing my week’s cooking. I was in the warmest room in the house, by a wide enough margin that there was a stiff breeze flowing out the kitchen door. And yet I was wearing, I think, three layers on top, my goofy hand-knit neck gaiter, flannel pajama pants, leg warmers (also hand-knit and goofy), and two pairs of socks inside my fleece-line house booties. This is normal house attire for me. And when I sit down, I add fingerless gloves and the whole business is enveloped in blankets.
I keep the thermostat set at 59°F during the day and 50°F at night. This is about as low as I can tolerate and just enough to keep the pipes from freezing downstairs — which is not heated and gets limited heat from the furnace when it’s burning (the former folks did a thorough job insulating everything down there, so no heat is lost, but… the pipes are so cold that you can’t drink cold tap-water in the winter). Even so, my furnace runs more than I’d like when it gets below 20°F outside, as it is today, and it costs hundreds of dollars every month to fill up that oil tank. (I count myself lucky to not see bills with four digits…)
I am not unusual here in Vermont. In fact, I might keep things a bit warm relative to the more hardy natives. In fact, I was informed last spring that my house is so well-insulated that the community program that does insulation upgrades for low cost could not improve upon it, except maybe in the attic. (But that seemed rather pointless since that room is closed off from the rest of the house by two doors that only get opened when I am doing holiday decorating things… thus maybe two or three times in the whole of winter.) So I have a snug house that is kept nicely warmed, though I have to spend more than I do on food to get the heating fuel.
It seems that much of the rest of the world is learning how to be Vermonters now. We dress warm all the time. We obsess about the heating bills. We are experimenting with all sorts of other ways to heat a space. We keep a generator about the premises for all the days when the feeble grid just gives up. And most of us don’t have a great number of electrical appliances — and don’t use the ones we do have without judicious consideration. (For example, you can’t run the dryer in the summer daylight hours because AC units in neighboring houses are draining the grid…)
I have a washer and a dryer. But I also have clotheslines on the enclosed (but unheated) back porch and in the basement and several drying racks in addition to the big one outside. And I don’t wash clothes or linens unless they are dirty, which makes for about three loads every other week or so. (Again, not unusual at all…) My kitchen appliances consist of a stove, a refrigerator and a toaster. (Again, not unusual…) There is a freezer in the basement and a dehumidifier for the summer. The hot water heater is electric as is the furnace blower, but I don’t use much hot water on average and, of course, the furnace use is kept to a minimum. (Also former folks and their insulation… from what I can tell, the hot water heater rarely has to reheat what is in the tank.) I have a couple clock radios, this computer, and an entertainment system that is elaborate but hardly ever turned on — and I have power strips to turn it all completely off when not in use. (Again… not at all unusual…) And there are lamps, up until recently augmented by the holiday lights. My one big electrical use — my car — is on a separate circuit in the garage (which is a different address from this house, because reasons…). But altogether I pay less than $150 a month for electricity. And Vermont rates are not cheap. (Hence the reason I am not unusual…)
Not to be preachy, but if this all sounds strange, then you probably need to reconsider your energy usage. Because this is already the norm for the world and will soon be normal for even the privileged global ten percent or so who used to have reliable, abundant and cheap energy available at the push of a button. Vermont is in the vanguard in powering down because it never managed to power up until well into the 1960s. (How’s that for a claim on trend-setting…) There were communities that did not have electricity or municipal water until the 1980s. And there are still very few (if any?) gas lines in this state. Granted, there are far too many oil-burning boilers, and it is difficult to replace them with carbon-free alternatives, given clouds and the feeble grid and so on. But many are being retrofitted to burn vegetable oil, and even more people are using those massive hearths and chimneys that come with every house up here and installing efficient wood burning stoves — locally made stoves, at that! — to heat up all that mass, for full nights of radiating heat, no night burning necessary. Plus those hot stoves can warm up your dinner, making the kitchen oven largely redundant. Except for bread… though… there are wonderful wood-burning ovens that can do even that well, especially if you’re able to go shopping in Amish country. (More trend-setters…)
And do not think that we live in misery. Vermont is a vibrant place, full of color, food, music, and comfort. We have a longer life expectancy than the average US (not that that is much of a bragging point these days, given how low the US is falling). We are so content with our lives that we rarely go elsewhere. (When was the last time you saw a Vermont license plate on the road in your city?) Why bother? So our lives are a bit more hands-on. That just means we actually know how all this infrastructure works and how to get around it when — inevitably — it doesn’t.
So perhaps we need to start running workshops. If it is unusual in the rest of the privileged world to even consider power usage, maybe Vermonters should start training folks in how to live with an increasingly expensive and feeble grid. HINT: there is more clothing in the winter… probably a good deal of goofy hand-knits.
There is also more of a focus on actively doing things in Vermont. We aren’t passive in life. We make our own lives. And we love the holidays! So the holiday lights will always be on. Somehow. And it will always be darkest right after they get boxed away.
But there are other reasons to celebrate. For example, today is Plough Monday, a ridiculous fund-raiser from the past that has turned into a carnival opening to the agricultural year. You could do worse than organize a party for the plough. At least you’ll have reason to burn candles and get up and dance around in the flickering light.
For dancing in January, I hardly have to wear two layers…
Plough Monday is an ancient rustic holiday that became attached to the Christmas holiday tradition. Plough Monday may trace its descent back to the Roman Compitalia, celebrated by slaves when plowing was over. By the mid-15th century it became traditional to end the Christmas season on Epiphany; the following Monday became Plough Monday. Also known as Fool Plough or Fond Plough, Plough Monday was observed in England up through the late 1800s with music, dancing, processions, mumming and other forms of ritualized begging.
For medieval farmers the end of the winter holiday season was also the beginning of the plowing season. Arable fields would have been left in stubble from the previous harvest. The soil, wet through by autumn and winter rains, would then be turned under by the plow as soon as the ground was accessible.
As early as the 13th century, this return to work was presaged with a plow race or in some cases the drawing of a plow around a bonfire. In typical celebrations, a group of farmers — or plow-men, as they were called — would hitch themselves to a plow and drag it through the village streets, accompanied by dancers and musicians. The plow-men would shout the refrain “God-speed the plough” and beg for money or gifts. There was often an element of coercion to this begging. One late 18th century observer noted “If you refuse them, they plough up your dunghill”. At times spurned plow-men would leave an even more conspicuous message by digging up the front yard. Thus even the poorest cottagers dropped a coin or two into the donation box.
The custom of blessing the plow is still followed in some English villages. A plow is decorated and brought into the village church on the day before Plough Monday to receive blessings that confer fertility on the plow. Some communities maintained a ceremonial plow for Plough ceremonies — an elaborate creation, several times larger than a functional plow and often made of wood even after metal blades were in use.
Only the richer landowners could afford their own plow; others took turns borrowing a communal one. In some communities, money was lent with the town plow to enable farmers to begin the work season. This money was collected through the custom of maintaining plough lights, often under a local guild dedicated to the cause. Plough lights, special candles, were kept burning in churches before images of saints to ensure a successful harvest. The plough lights were largely extinguished with Henry VIII’s ban on candles and lamps in churches. However, even after the 16th century Reformation wiped out saint veneration, the celebration of Plough Monday remained. The money originally raised for plough lights and community charity now paid for for ale in the local tavern.
From the beginning, dances were performed around the plow. The dance sometimes acted out the revival of the earth in spring. One tradition had it that the year’s grain would grow as high as the dancers could leap, leading to rather wild dancing. Some villages would also drag the plow or a heavy log over the winter fields, symbolically plowing the fallows to ensure fertility in the coming year. But the most typical dance was some form of the Morris or Sword Dance, accompanied by mumming a very roughly standardized “Plough Play”.
The processional characters varied in dress and name across England, though the whole group itself was commonly known simply as Plough Boys, or sometimes Plough Bullocks and even Plough Witches. Several stock characters were included in the pantomime. One man known as “the Bessy” would dress in women’s clothing (the Maid Marion character of Morris Dance). The Bessy is a stock character in pantomime and mumming, but she is particularly associated with Plough Monday as she normally carried the donation box.
Another character known as “the Fool” wore animal skins or a fur hat and tail. In the Sword Dance versions, the Fool was often “decapitated” at the climax of the dance. The other dancers would then call for a doctor who would appear and proceed to revive the Fool with “medicine” from a bottle. The death and resurrection of the Fool of course symbolized the miraculous rebirth of nature in spring.
In some variants of the play, one of the plough men would woo a lady (sometimes the Bessy, others merely a generic woman, or rather a lad in drag) who would invariably choose the Fool over the amorous farmer. In some localities, another coarser transvestite named “Dame Jane” would show up to accost the Fool and accuse him of fathering her child. This wooing element was believed older than any combat or resurrection motifs though there is scant evidence for any of the Plough Play themes before the mid-16th century. Mumming seems to have been grafted onto the plough procession when the original reason to hold that procession — to raise money for the poorer farmers through the custom of plough lights — was suppressed by the Reformation.
Plough Monday parades and plays have seen a regeneration, riding on the renewed interest in folk traditions which took hold in the 1960s. Colorful festivals can now be found in many localities throughout the UK. While these are not notable for their ancient pedigrees, they are quite like the original Plough Monday parades in that they support and derive from the entire community and lack the tension between a special group coercing money from the rest of the villagers.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Henderson, Helene, ed. Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. 2009. Omnigraphics, Inc.: Detroit, MI.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun.1996. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance.1976 reproduction. Dover: New York.
© Elizabeth Anker 2023