1 January – New Year's Day
In medieval and Tudor times, the calendar year actually began on 25th March, Lady Day, but confusingly (for us anyway!) the Roman tradition of New Year was celebrated on 1st January. This was a time for the nobility and monarch to exchange gifts. The king would get dressed in his chamber and then wait for one of his consort's servants to bring in the gift from the queen. He would then accept gifts from other courtiers and the queen would do the same in her chamber. This gift giving was an ideal opportunity for a courtier to try and win favour from the monarch or to impress the monarch with a lavish gift.
1 January – Feast of the Circumcision of Christ
1st January was also the feast of the circumcision of Christ. Circumcision, according to Jewish law, was to take place eight days (according to the Semitic calculation, which is actually seven days by a northern European calculation) after birth. It was also the day on which a child was formally named. Christ's circumcision is recorded in the Book of Luke:
“And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21, King James Version)
6 January – Epiphany
This feast day brought the Twelve Days of Christmas to a close and celebrated the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. The Book of Matthew records: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11, King James Version) These gifts from the Magi were remembered each year by the reigning monarch. The British Monarchy website explains:
“A service of Holy Communion is celebrated on 6 January (Epiphany) each year in the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, when an offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh is made on behalf of The Queen. These are the gifts offered, according to tradition, by the Magi to the infant Jesus.
This service has its origins in royal ceremonies which date back to the Norman Conquest. According to Psalm 72, the Wise Men were three kings, so it was fitting that an earthly king should make an offering at Epiphany. It became a crown-wearing day in the 15th century, and the Sovereign always attended the ceremony in person.”
Twelfth Night was a time to celebrate and it was marked at the royal court with entertainment like masques, plays and pageants, and the people might also share a communal bowl of wassail or Lambswool. Chronicler Edward Hall recorded a masque taking place for the first time at court at Epiphany 1512:
“On the daie of the Epiphanie at night, the kyng with a. xi. other were disguised, after the. maner of Italie, called a maske, a thyng not seen afore in Englande, thei were appareled in garmentes long and brode, wrought all with gold, with visers and cappes of gold & after the banket doen, these Maskers came in, with sixe gentlemen disguised in silke bearyng staffe torches, and desired the ladies to daunce, some were content, and some that knewe the fashion of it refused, because it was not a thyng commonly seen. And after thei daunced and commoned together, as the fashion of the Maske is, thei tooke their leaue and departed, and so did the Quene, and all the ladies.”
People would feast on sumptuous foods and then share Twelfth Night Cake. Inside this cake was hidden a dried pea and the person who found the pea in their slice of cake became the Lord of Misrule at the feast, being in charge of the revelry.
Plough Monday was the first Monday after 6th January and was the day on which things would return to normal after the Twelve Days of Christmas and people would return to work. It was also the first day of the new agricultural year and 16th century poet and farmer Thomas Tusser wrote:
“Plough Monday, next after that Twelfth tide is past
Bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last.”
Ronald Hutton, in his book Stations of the Sun, writes of how there are records from the 15th century of ploughs being dragged around the streets “while money was collected behind it for parish funds” and that this money might be spent on the “upkeep” of plough lights, which were candles that were kept burning in church at this time to bring the Lord's blessing on those working in the fields.
7 January – St Distaff's Day
This is a day that I had never heard of until I read Steve Roud's The English Year. Roud writes of how this was the day on which women would resume their spinning following the Twelve Days of Christmas. He explains that there would also be fun as the young men would try to steal the women's flax and tow to burn them, while the women retaliated by soaking the men with water. Robert Herrick (1591–1674) writes of this tradition in his poem “St Distaff's Day or the Morrow After Twelfth Night”:
“Partly work and partly play
You must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fother them;
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right;
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.”
Roud notes that St Distaff didn't actually exist, a distaff was an implement used for spinning.
13 January – Feast of St Hilary
The 13th January (sometimes celebrated on 14th) is the feast day of Hilary of Poitiers, who was Bishop of Poitiers and a Doctor of the Church in the 4th century. He was raised to “Doctor of the Universal Church” (Universae Ecclesiae Doctor) by Pope Pius IX in 1851. He is considered by some to be the Patron Saint of Lawyers, and others write of him being the Patron Saint against snakes and for snake bites, and of parents of problem children. The legal (and academic at some universities) session the Hilary Term is named after him and runs from January to March.
25 January – Feast of the Conversion of St Paul
This feast day celebrated the conversion of St Paul (formerly Saul) on the road to Damascus. While Saul, who had persecuted Christian, was travelling to Damascus, “there shined round about him a light from heaven” and a voice spoke to him. The voice identified itself as Jesus “whom you are persecuting”. This experience led to Saul's conversion and he turned from Saul, a man who persecuted Christian, to Paul the Apostle and great evangelist.
In Mary I's reign, the Feast of St Paul's was celebrated with torchlit processions and bonfires. Perhaps this light symbolised the light from Heaven which Saul saw.