Jan 112016


Today is Plough Monday in England, the first Monday after Epiphany. It is, therefore, a “movable feast” and not a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar. When I enter the fourth year of this blog – this May – I am going to shift from fixed dates to movable feasts to add some variety. I thought I would inject a little foretaste here as an experiment, especially because I have always celebrated Plough Monday as a way of gently moving from the Christmas season into the rest of the year.

Plough Monday celebrations were a great deal more popular a century ago, and more, when England still had a sizable rural, agricultural population. A large number of rural customs that flourished in England in the mid-19th century were dying or dead by the beginning of the 20th as people migrated from the country to cities and lost their ties to rural life. Antiquarians and, later, folklorists and anthropologists took to the task of recording the remains of these customs, as well as hunting down snippets of information from archives. The data we have to go on about these customs are notoriously unreliable, and have been hopelessly generalized by recent generations of scholars and revivalists. Certainly this is the case with Plough Monday.


As best as I can gather, Plough Monday was a celebration during a slack time of the agricultural year, with the serious purpose of making money when there was no work. What part of the activities was money making for necessities and how much was simple fun is impossible to say nowadays. ALL customs associated with begging in England in the 19th century had an eye to making ends meet at a time when wages alone barely covered necessities, even though having fun was a major element.

If you want to get into the details of old Plough Monday customs you can go here http://petemillington.webspace.virginmedia.com/PloughMonday/Origins.htm This is a very useful article for exploring the history and distribution of Plough Monday activities, although it gets carried away with a pointless search for “origins” – a meaningless endeavor. The essentials are that Plough Monday celebrated the beginning of the ploughing season after Christmas. The commonest element was taking a decorated plough by “ploughboys” around the village from house to house, begging for money or a treat of some sort, such as food and drink. This custom may have been widespread in England at one time, but by the 19th century it was commonest in the east, in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, east Anglia and the east Midlands.


Other elements of the Plough Monday festivities were more localized. Some Yorkshire villages had a linked sword dance, while east Anglia had either a folk play (similar to mummers plays found widely throughout England) or dancing. Molly dancing was part of some east Anglian festivities, although very little is known about the specifics. The dances appear to be based on country dances, performed in sets of four by men in costume and blackface (often with one of the men dressed as a woman). Go here for more information http://www.amazon.com/Truculent-Rustics-Dancing-Anglia-Before/dp/0903515180/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8


William Hone in The Every Day Book (1825) has this to say:

The first Monday after Twelfth-day is called Plough Monday, and appears to have received that name because it was the first day after Christmas that husbandmen resumed the plough. In some parts of the country, and especially in the north, they draw the plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople. Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistecoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy. Sometimes the sport is assisted by a humorous countryman to represent a fool. He is covered with ribbons, and attired in skins, with a depending tail, and carries a box to collect money from the spectators. They are attended by music, and Morris-dancers when they can be got; but there is always a sportive dance with a few lasses in all their finery, and a superabundance or ribbons. When this merriment is well managed, it is very pleasing.

I doubt that Hone actually saw such celebrations, but is conflating accounts he read. Nonetheless you get the general idea. The last sentence is telling. What does “well managed” mean? The thing is that the ploughboys went around with their plough looking for a handout, but if it were not forthcoming they could exact a penalty, chief of which was to yoke themselves to the plough and plough a furrow in your lawn. There are also instances of them smashing windows. How often this actually happened cannot be known now. Not often, I suspect.

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Plough Monday activities were dying out (or suppressed by authorities) in the early 20th century, with a few shards hanging on as children’s activities (that is, suitably emasculated). What remained was noted by a few researchers and formed the basis of modern “revivals” – in the sense that Plough Monday is now celebrated once again, but the dances used are recent inventions only very loosely based on the older dances, and the dancers are not ploughboys.

I always celebrate Plough Monday with a bread and cheese platter (ploughman’s lunch), and sometimes with a Norfolk plough pudding. Here are images taken from previous posts.

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You can find my recipe for plough pudding here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/julian-norwich/

Today I am making oxtail stew as a suitably festive dish (oxen were used to pull ploughs in regions with heavy soils). This is an old favorite of mine dating back to my youth when I used to enjoy packaged and canned oxtail soup until I discovered home made was miles better. The secret is in the seasonings of the broth.


Oxtail Stew

Begin with a good meaty oxtail cut in chunks. Brown the oxtail pieces on both sides in a little oil in a heavy pot. Add a chopped onion and one or two cloves of garlic (minced) to the pot, and continue to sauté until they are soft. Then cover with good beef stock, seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, ginger, allspice, and freshly ground black pepper. Simmer gently until the meat is tender (about 2 hours). About 30 minutes before the end, add carrots and potatoes cut coarsely. Adjust the seasonings if necessary. Serve in bowls with crusty bread.

Dec 262013

The Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen

Today is the feast of St Stephen, first Christian martyr. Stephen, was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial he made a long speech fiercely denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul), a Pharisee who would later convert to Christianity and become an apostle.The only primary source for information about Stephen is the Biblical book Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected for a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6:

1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Thus was inaugurated the office of deacon, which remains to this day in many Christian denominations a position of service to the community, especially to the poor and needy. Besides his official duties, however, Stephen also preached to the people and raised the ire of some:

8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.

Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin is reported in Acts 7; the longest speech recorded in the Greek Bible.  It’s fiery stuff not calculated to win any friends on the Sanhedrin. For example,

51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”

The consequences for Stephen were dire:

54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.


Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek, Stephanos, meaning “crown.” Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr’s palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.


St Stephen’s day is a widespread holiday in Europe associated with a host of customs.  In Ireland, the day is one of nine official public holidays. In Irish, it is called Lá Fhéile Stiofán or Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Ireland, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. Boys and young men dress up in old clothes or disguises  and travel from door to door begging for money “for the wren.” At one time they carried a wren on a pole which they had killed that morning, but nowadays they carry a fake wren.  Each group had a song they sang as they walked the streets. This one was popularized by the group Steeleye Span:

The custom is not very common these days, although it is being revived in some communities.  I had the good fortune to see the traditional wren boys in Letterkenny, Co, Donegal in 1971 late at night as they paraded through the town with lighted fire brands. Fun, but just a tad scary too. Fifty or so young farm boys who have been drinking all day, disguised and carrying live fire – hmmmm. The people in the town were absolutely jubilant as they passed through.

In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the day following Christmas is a holiday known as Boxing Day, so called because of the custom in the 19th century of service people going to their employers to receive Christmas “boxes,” that is, bonuses for good service.  Household servants had to work on Christmas Day but had Boxing Day off.  There are numerous customs associated with the day, too numerous to mention.  My favorite is the tradition of linked sword dancing which is very common in the NE of England.  Here is a sample from Grenoside in Yorkshire:

Boxing Day is typically a day for using up leftovers from Christmas dinner in creative ways.  St Stephen’s Day pie is a great recipe for this.  It’s a variant of the classic shepherd’s pie or cottage pie; ground meat and veggies in gravy topped with mashed potato and then baked.  This recipe should also teach you that you can make a pie out of just about anything topped with potatoes.  I like to make a mix of fish and shellfish in a white sauce.  The world is your oyster.


St Stephen’s Day Pie


2 lbs cold turkey meat
1 lb cold ham or bacon
4 ozs butter plus extra for the topping
1 ½ cups chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 ½ cups poultry stock
1 ¼ cups turkey gravy
8 ozs small button mushrooms
4 tsps chopped parsley
4 tsps chopped chives
2 tsps marjoram, sage, or thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
? cup heavy cream
2 pounds mashed potato


Cut the turkey and ham/bacon into 1″ pieces. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet or saucepan, add the chopped onions, cover and sauté for about 10 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.

Wash and slice the mushrooms.

When the onions are soft, stir in the garlic and remove to a plate. Increase the heat and cook the sliced mushrooms. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and add to the onion and garlic.

Toss the cold turkey and ham /bacon in the hot pan, using a little extra butter if necessary. Add the mushrooms and onions. De-glaze the pan with the turkey stock. Add the cream and chopped herbs and bring to a boil. Add the gravy, meat, mushrooms and onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Pour the filling into a deep pie dish and top with potatoes. Dot the top with butter to ensure browning. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the potato is golden and the pie is bubbling.

Serves 6-8