While Twelfth Night is usually regarded as the end of the Christmas Season, in rural England there was one final celebration: Plough Monday.
The first part of the festivities, on the Sunday after Epiphany, was serious and solemn enough. A ribbon-decked plough was carried into the local church to be blessed in the hope of a prosperous, productive new year, and a symbolic return to work after the Christmas season.
The next day, however - Plough Monday - was marked by more pagan excess, with the newly-blessed plough dragged through the neighborhood by burly ploughmen with their faces painted black, loudly demanding pennies for a frolic afterwards. Anyone who didn't oblige risked having their yard ploughed up; think trick-or-treating with an attitude.
Afterwards followed much drinking, kissing-games, bonfires, drumming, and general partying in the street, led by Molly Dancers (ploughmen in hobnail boots and black-painted faces) dancing around the plough and with each other. Overseeing it all would be their "queen", Bessy, a big guy dressed as a woman. Traditions vary from region to region, but the basics (and the plough) seems to be much the same.
These two 19th c. prints capture the spirit of the day pretty well. I particularly like the resigned women and children watching from the front of their cottage, doubtless wondering what is up with their cross-dressing Dad.
Here are two 19th c. reports of Plough Monday, already a bit gilded with nostalgia: from Chamber's Book of Days (1879) and Hone's Everyday Book (1825). However, lest you think Plough Monday is now to be found only to Thomas-Hardy-Land, here's proof via YouTube (and in the pub afterwards, of course) that it's still going strong – at least with these Molly Dancers in Suffolk, UK. The band's traditional music is fun, too.
Illustration, top: "Plough Monday", from George Wilson's Costumes of Yorkshire, 1814.
Below: "Plough Monday", from Hone's Everyday Book, 1825