Happy New Year!
Molly dancers at Ramsey’s
Well Twelfth Night has come and gone, the lights have been taken down and the decorations packed away for another year. Except for that stray bauble you’ll probably come across mid-August and pretend you haven’t seen in order to avoid the arduous task of dragging out the tubs of Christmas décor.
Lugging a tub of tinsel though is a lot easier than dragging a decorated plough through the streets, which is what was the custom for 15th century British farmworkers on the Monday following Epiphany.
Plough Monday, as it was – and still is in some areas of the U.K. - known, was once one of the most important dates in the agricultural calendar. It’s when farm workers resumed work after their Christmas holidays. In the hopes of enjoying a bountiful harvest, the laborers would decorate their ploughs and take them into the local church to be blessed. They’d then go door-to-door to the wealthiest homes requesting money to see them through the winter. Work was scarce in the winter months, given that the fields were too hard for ploughing. Although, any coins they might receive usually lasted no longer than it took for them to get themselves to the nearest public house.
Accompanying the ploughs were musicians and merry makers, such as the “Bessy” – an old woman, or a boy dressed as an old woman – and "Molly" dancers, who also featured a man dressed up as a woman.
The 2008 Whittlesey Straw Bear
Molly dances are similar to Morris dances – minus the sticks and bells. Despite the name, the dancers are not female, but were originally the young boys who drove the ploughs. If the landowners refused to pay up, they’d be subjected to a penalty. Similar to trick-or-treating. Only a furrow being ploughed through your front lawn is a lot tougher to deal with than having your trees TP-d! In order to conceal their identities from the same landowners they might shortly be relying on for employment, the plough boys and farmworkers would black their faces with soot and adorn their clothing with colored scarves, etc.
After Plough Monday traditions started to die out in the 19th century, they were replaced by Straw Bears. Men, or boys, dressed head to foot in about 70 lbs. of straw. I kid you not. The parading of a giant Straw Bear through the streets still occurs and is a popular way of raising funds for charitable organizations. One such Straw Bear parade takes place in the Cambridgeshire town of Whittlesey. Here's a glimpse of the festivities: