British Popular Customs Present And Past - online book

A calendar of the traditional customs, practices & rituals of the British Isles.

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Jan. 7.]                         plough Monday.                                  41
threshers carrying their flails, reapers bearing their sickles, and carters with their long whips, which they were cracking to add to the noise, while even the smith and the miller were among the number, for the one sharpened the plough­shares and the other ground the corn ; and Bessy rattled his box, and danced so high that he showed his worsted stockings and corduroy breeches; and very often, if there was a thaw, tucked up his gown skirts under his waistcoat, and shook the bonnet off his head, and disarranged the long ringlets that ought to have concealed his whiskers. For Bessy is to the procession of Plough Monday what the leading figurante is to an opera or ballet, and dances about as gracefully as the hippopotami described by Dr. Living­stone. But their rough antics were the cause of much laughter, and rarely do we ever remember hearing any coarse jest that would call up the angry blush to a modest cheek.
No doubt they were called " plough-bullocks," through drawing the plough, as bullocks were formerly used, and are still yoked to the plough in some parts of the country. The rubbishing verses they recited are not worth preserving, beyond the line, which graces many a public-house sign, 11 God speed the plough." At the large farmhouse, besides money they obtained refreshment, and through the quantity of ale they thus drank during the day managed to get what they called " their load by night." Even the poorest cot­tagers dropped a few pence into Bessy's box.
But the great event of the day was when they came before some house which bore signs that the owner was well-to-do in the world, and nothing was given to them. Bessy rattled his box, and the ploughmen danced, while the country lads blew the bullocks' horns, or shouted with all their might ; but if there was still no sign, no coming forth of either bread-and-cheese or ale, then the word was given, the ploughshare driven into the ground before the door or window, the whole twenty men yoked pulling like one, and in a minute or two the ground before the house was as brown, barren, and ridgy as a newly-ploughed field. But this was rarely done, for everybody gave something, and were it but little the men never murmured, though they might talk
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