Distaff Day


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Distaff Day

Type of Holiday: Folkloric, Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: January 7
Where Celebrated: England
Symbols and Customs: Distaff

ORIGINS

The DISTAFF and the spindle were used to spin flax or wool fibers before the invention of the spinning wheel in 1533. The flax was wound around a short staff known as the DISTAFF , which was fastened at the woman's waist by her girdle or tucked under her arm. The flax would be fed from the distaff through the woman's fingers to the spindle, which twisted it into yarn or thread. When women visited each other, they often carried their distaff and spindle with them to occupy them as they chatted. Sometimes the distaff was called the "rock"-from the German rocken, which described the spinning apparatus. When women gathered together to spin, it was often referred to as "rocking."

January 7 was traditionally the day on which women resumed their chores after the twelve-day CHRISTMAS celebration, which ended on EPIPHANY, or January 6. Because spinning was such a basic and essential female activity at one time, it made sense to call the day on which women returned to their normal routine Distaff Day or Rock Day. Some people called it St. Distaff's Day, although the name was a medieval joke. There never was a St. Distaff, nor was Distaff Day really a church festival. But it was widely observed at one time in England.

Men apparently didn't feel the same compulsion to get back to work after Christmas. They often made fun of the women by setting fire to their flax, in return for which they had pails of water dumped on their heads.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Distaff

Because it was the women who did most of the spinning, the distaff became a symbol for the female sex. The "distaff side" was a legal term referring to the female branch of the family, while the "spear side" was the male branch. And a "spinster," of course, was an unmarried woman who had nothing better to do than spin all day. The art of spinning was so essential and so completely identified with women that the Three Fates in Greek mythology were depicted as three women spinning the thread of human destiny.

FURTHER READING

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.

Distaff Day

January 7
After the 12-day Christmas celebration ended on Twelfth Night or Epiphany, St. Distaff's Day was traditionally the day on which women resumed their chores, symbolized by the distaff, a tool used in spinning flax or wool. It was also called Rock Day, from the German word rocken —"rock" being another name for the distaff. The "spear side" and the "distaff side" were legal terms used to distinguish the inheritance of male from that of female children, and the distaff eventually became a synonym for the female sex as a whole. Distaff Day was not really a church festival, but it was widely observed at one time in England.
Although the women had to return to work after Twelfth Night was over, the men apparently had plenty of time to amuse themselves by setting the flax on fire, in return for which they would get buckets of water dumped on their heads.
SOURCES:
AnnivHol-2000, p. 6
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 68
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 22
DictDays-1988, pp. 32, 96
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 663
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 25
OxYear-1999, p. 28
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 57